A major oil company has been authorized to drill a wildcat well in a fairly remote area of the Uinta Mountains.
Susan Giannettino, Wasatch-Cache National Forest supervisor, has decided to permit Chevron USA Inc. to drill in the Main Fork drainage of the Stillwater Fork of the Bear River.Environmentalists, who plan to appeal, say the oil exploration would be "another nail in the coffin of the High Uintas," which have endured decades of overgrazing, as well as too much timber harvesting and oil exploration.
The proposed drilling site is two miles north of the High Uintas Wilderness Area, and two miles east of U-150, also known as the Mirror Lake Highway. Chevron spokesman Walt McGuire said the company plans to begin building roads to the 3.4-acre site in July, with drilling possibly beginning as early as fall.
Dick Carter, coordinator of the Utah Wilderness Association, said his group is more than a little disappointed with the decision.
"We're extremely angry," said Carter. "There's no reason for the Forest Service to be so shortsighted in the long-term perspective of the (Uintas). I'm equally disturbed with Chevron. They continually try to tell the public that they are environmentally concerned. They had a chance here to step away from something that appears to be environmentally damaging."
Carter said the well has a high potential for causing irreparable harm yet has a low potential for being productive. He noted that a couple of other wells drilled in the area 10 years ago were unsuc-cess-ful.
"Why are we going to take this magnificently quiet, green, silent spot and turn it into an industrial zone for 200 days this summer, with the potential to turn it into a full-field development if oil is discovered?"
McGuire said the UWA has no scientific basis for its claim that the potential for petroleum discovery is low. Geological reports indicate there is an "overthrust" formation 2.5 miles below the surface that may contain a reservoir of oil or natural gas.
"But there is no way for us to tell what kind of potential exists until we drill a well," McGuire said, noting that 100 wildcat wells were sunk before the productive "Over-thrust Belt" in southwestern Wyoming and northeastern Utah was discovered.
By opposing the drilling, McGuire said, environmentalists are also going back on their word, because when the wilderness area was established, they agreed to allow petroleum exploration outside the wilderness area.
McGuire said the project, which will cost "well over $2 million," will be conducted in an environmentally sound manner. "We have an excellent track record of drilling in these environments. We respect wildlife, air quality and water-quality issues."
As part of the project, Chevron must build a 4,000-square-foot trailhead/parking area near the Main Fork Bridge.
And if no oil is discovered, the company must reclaim all surface disturbance at the well site as well as reclaim and close the road.
Carter said he hopes it never gets that far. The UWA has made the Main Fork well its priority issue and plans to appeal Gian-net-tino's decision administratively and, if necessary, in court.
At the very least, said Carter, the drilling operation should be accomplished with helicopters, rather than with a new road into a roadless area.
The wilderness group may get a sympathetic ear from the Clinton administration.
"You can bet (Forest Service Chief) Jack Ward Thomas is going to hear about this," Carter said. "So is (Interior) Secretary (Bruce) Babbitt, who is a part decision-maker in this process. If Thomas has the concern he professes to have, and I believe he does, he's going to have a hard time supporting this proposal."
Oil, natural-gas explorations in Utah
Thirty-four new energy companies are looking for oil and natural gas in Utah, bringing the total number of such companies to 215, according to state geologist M. Lee Allison. At least 18 companies started exploration programs in 1993 or are considering acquiring existing wells that would be rejuvenated. Thirteen companies actually started drilling new wells or staked well locations, and three companies relocated or opened offices in Utah. Allison attributed the increased activity in Utah's petroleum industry to a comprehensive program in the state Department of Natural Resources that includes "favorable tax treatment" and "realistic and consistent regulatory enforcement" as well as improved marketing opportunities and cooperative projects between public and private sectors.