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BLM APPROVES DRILLING OIL WELL NEAR MOAB

Drilling a controversial wildcat oil well seven miles north of Moab was approved Tuesday, but measures must be taken to protect desert bighorn sheep.

With the compromise, the Bureau of Land Management may have cooled off the fierce debate over the proposal by Coors Energy Co. to drill the new oil well at the mouth of Little Canyon.The Utah Mountain Bike Association has withdrawn its support for a suit against the BLM over the issue. The Southern Utah Wilderness Association says it will have to study the compromise to see whether it still wants to pursue an appeal.

Threats to the well-being of a native bighorn herd were cited by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and Arches National Park officials as a reason for concern about the plans by Coors Energy to drill the exploratory well.

The proposal was so controversial that after the BLM issued an environmental assessment, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund and the Utah Mountain Bike Association threatened to sue. Now the bike association has withdrawn from any possible suit.

The approval came in the form of a Record of Decision signed by Gene Nodine, Moab district director for the BLM.

"One of the key things is that we worked out an agreement with the Grand County Commission that the access road into the site would be engineered to the minimum extent possible to get the equipment in there," Nodine said.

Once the well is drilled, the road is to be restored as nearly as possible to its original state. The route is a Class B county road, for which Grand County has full authority.

"I thought that was a good compromise," he said.

The district director predicted some short-term effects would occur. But presently, he believes the bighorns are located closer to water, not near the drill site, because that area has no springs or streams. Also, it's hot for biking.

Asked what would happen if the well succeeds, Nodine replied, "If they get a producer, then of course we'll have to do some further analysis for the development of that particular well." If that happens, he hopes Coors will install a pipeline.

"We're ready to go," Scott Groene, a staff attorney in Moab for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said Tuesday of the possible suit. "But we're first going to look at the decision to see if they've complied with the federal law."

It is possible the BLM is now in compliance, he said.

"In our original comments, we asked them to consider that alternative," the compromise now struck. He thinks the BLM is considering that now only because of the threat to sue. "It's a good thing if they have considered it, and that's an advantage of public involvement - and why we have been arguing for public involvement in this process," Groene said.

If the road can be used without too much gouging, and if it's reclaimed after the well is in, "that should help the bighorns."

Doug Alley, Salt Lake City, the coordinator of the bike association, said he spoke with Nodine in Moab and they reached the compromise.

"After talking with the BLM, and the BLM getting in touch with the Grand County Commission, they were willing to throttle back their plan for the Gemini Bridge Roads," he said.

The County Commission had hoped at one time to turn the road into a graveled route suitable for touring cars, he said.