Chevron is one step closer to drilling a well just outside the High Uintas Wilderness Area after a second approval by U.S. Forest Service officials.
All that awaits now is approval from the Bureau of Land Management.Yet the Utah Wilderness Association, an organization that has opposed the well since it was first approved in January, still intends to stop Chevron in its tracks.
Peter W. Karp, supervisor of the Uinta and Wasatch-Cache National forests, released a letter this week giving his approval for the proposed exploratory well in the Main Fork drainage of the Stillwater Fork of the Bear River, about three miles from the wilderness boundary.
Susan Giannettino, past forest supervisor, had also approved the venture earlier this year, but the UWA appealed. The regional forester, acting on the appeal, affirmed Giannettino's decision but directed Karp to conduct a more thorough analysis of the cumulative effects if a well were built.
Specifically, Karp was to examine the potential effects if the exploratory well discovered oil and a second (confirmation) well were built.
Impacts listed in the Forest Service report included increased potential for man-caused fire, safety problems, surface soil disturbance and minimal impacts on wildlife and water if a second well were needed.
"Those impacts are not significant and, most importantly, not very likely," Karp wrote in his letter.
The Forest Service will now request BLM to give approval, said public affairs officer Dick Kline, noting that the bureau typically follows Forest Service recommendations. "As far as we're concerned this clears the way," he said. The project could begin as early as next month, he said.
That is, if the UWA doesn't have its way.
George Nickas, UWA assistant coordinator, said his organization will again appeal the Forest Service decision. The decision was not unexpected, he said, but he is upset that the Forest Service didn't involve the public when conducting its report of cumulative effects.
"That analysis should have been subject to public review" as established by the National Environmental Policy Act, Nickas said.
The UWA plans to appeal to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, a body with the Department of the Interior that reviews BLM decisions. Yet the UWA does not automatically get a stay of action and cannot initiate an appeal until BLM actually signs the drilling permit, Nickas said.
Having both procedural and substantive questions, Nickas said UWA's bottom-line concern is that the drilling project "threatens to transfrom what is now one of the most pristine wilderness areas in the world into an industrial zone."
Chevron spokesman Walt McGuire doesn't see it that way. The proposed area for for the well to be built is not undisturbed, he says, but it is beautiful and pristine. "And we intend to keep it that way."
Chevron must follow several restrictions, such as limiting vehicular and human traffic, waiting for the snowpack to melt and continually studying quality of water and wildlife. All of these are intended to minimize negative effects, McGuire said.
If construction plans go smoothly this summer, drilling could begin in fall, McGuire said.
Speaking of the conflict between wilderness advocates and those who wish to use the land for industry, Kline said, "We felt a certain level of development can be implemented without making an adverse impact. It puts a challenge on us as an agency to do our very best."