A conservation group has persuaded the federal government to delay a Houston-based company's plan to search for oil on public land outside of Capitol Reef National Park.

Ruling in favor of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a deputy state director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management reversed a BLM district manager's decision that would have allowed BHP Petroleum to drill a wildcat well in the Studhorse Peaks area in Garfield County.In September, Gordon Staker, manager of the Cedar City BLM district, approved a permit for BHP to sink a 7,000-foot exploratory well.

SUWA immediately filed an appeal, pointing out numerous problems with the proposal and the environmental analysis that led to the permit.

Doug Koza, the BLM's deputy state director of minerals resources, agreed with many of SUWA's arguments and ordered the Cedar City district to do a more complete environmental analysis of the drilling proposal.

Ken Rait, issues coordinator for SUWA, said the reversal is a good sign that the BLM's decisions are becoming more environmentally sensitive.

"The BLM is to be commended for this," Rait said. "It's cause for some optimism because, generally, environmental protection has not been considered with equal footing as development on public land."

Koza agreed with SUWA that the analysis:

- did not document alternatives to the proposed well. Those alternatives include "slant drilling," in which the well is drilled on an angle, or moving the location to a new site.

- did not adequately address the impact of noise on what Rait calls the "resource of silence" in the area. "The Escalante canyons are one of the quietest regions there are, and (silence) is certainly a diminishing resource that needs to be protected," Rait said.

- did not fully address mitigation measures for the drilling operation and accompanying road construction.

- did not address the possibility that the well would be successful. "All that was addressed was the actual drilling," Koza said, noting that the analysis must consider the impacts of full-scale production.

Rait said he hopes the well will never be drilled because it would be located within the 5.7 million acres of Utah lands proposed in a BLM wilderness bill, sponsored by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-New York.

But BHP is committed to drilling the well, said Ed Jones, vice president for production.

"It has very large potential," Jones said. "It would test the potential for oil in an area that has not been tested for miles around. The odds are that we will not find anything, but we think the potential is significant enough that if it is a discovery, it will be a very nice-sized field."

Jones said the potential could exceed 100 million barrels or "nothing at all . . . We'll never know until we drill," he said.

BHP Petroleum is a subsidiary of Broken Hill Proprietary Co., based in Melbourne, Australia.