Utah drilling project boosts cleaner fuel

The announcement Tuesday by Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar that his department has approved a major natural gas drilling project for east-central Utah is welcome news in several respects.

For one thing, the approval allows Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp. to drill up to 3,675 new gas wells in that part of Utah over the next decade. It is estimated the project will result in up to 4,000 jobs, and many of them will no doubt be with well-service companies or drilling-related businesses located here in Mesa County.

Additionally, the Utah project is one of those unfortunately rare instances in which an energy company, environmental groups and federal and state agencies were able to work together and reach agreement on a natural gas development that protects the environment while providing access to a valuable resource.

To achieve that, Anadarko agreed not to drill in a number of environmentally sensitive areas, such as on the cliffs adjacent to the White River, which flows from Colorado into Utah.

The company also agreed to use directional drilling on existing drill pads where possible, and to purchase 640 acres of riverfront property for conservation, according to Utah’s Deseret News.

Equally important, the Andarko project is expected to add some 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to the nation’s fuel supply, helping to make possible the nation’s needed transformation to cleaner-burning fuels. President Barack Obama and Salazar have made it clear since early in their administration that is one of their top goals.

One thing the project will not do, however, is boost the price of natural gas, which is currently near its lowest level in a decade. That’s due to the large number of gas fields that have been put into operation in the past few years throughout the country. The Deseret News reported that 2011 saw the largest single-year increase in natural gas production in this nation’s history.

What’s missing in this picture of abundance is a solid public commitment and infrastructure to fully utilize the natural gas bonanza. The federal government and states such as Colorado have made efforts to replace aging coal-fired, electric-generation plants with natural gas plants. But there have only been very limited efforts to establish the public infrastructure needed to support widespread use of vehicles fueled with compressed natural gas.

Also needed is a consistent federal policy that provides certainty to energy companies and investors that there will be sufficient natural gas fields available for leasing over the long term so they can commit to putting money into things like CNG vehicles.

Tuesday’s approval of the Utah gas field is a significant step in that direction. Much more will be needed in coming years.


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