State lawmakers decided Wednesday to follow through on their plan hatched in September to send a letter to regulators in support of a proposal to significantly increase the amount of natural gas drilling on the Tavaputs Plateau above Nine Mile Canyon.

The Nov. 19 letter is being sent to Bureau of Land Management state director Selma Sierra. Members of the Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee were presented a draft version by the group's chairmen Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, and Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab.

"This project, proposed by Bill Barrett Corporation, is very important to Utah," the letter reads. "The Tavaputs project has the potential to provide Utah's natural gas consumers with up to 60 percent of the state's annual consumption for the next 15 years and a significant amount for many years thereafter."

But the proposal by the Colorado-based Barrett Corp. to drill 800 wells on the plateau has been met with fierce opposition from critics who say the increased truck traffic through Nine Mile Canyon will harm untold amounts of Indian rock art panels. Watchdogs like the Utah-based Nine Mile Canyon Coalition also say the added industrial activity will cause environmental and air quality concerns in the canyon that spans parts of Emery and Duchesne counties.

Jenkins and Noel disagree with opponents, saying in the letter to the BLM's Selma Sierra, "Dust suppression measures tested this summer have proven to be effective, state of the art emission control equipment will be used, and wildlife mitigation practices are integrated into this project." Cultural resources, Jenkins and Noel added, "will be protected."

Barrett Corp. spokesman Duane Zavadil has in the past said they have not harmed any cultural resources with current drilling activities in the area and that "the mere act of driving by cultural artifacts is not going to disturb them."

But the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is among three groups suing in U.S. District Court to protect Nine Mile Canyon's famed pictographs and petroglyphs. The suit is asking a judge to consider whether the BLM is following the law in approving natural gas drilling permits for Tavaputs.

Previously the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation sent its own letter to the BLM expressing concern about the effects and appropriateness of dust treatment measures. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has weighed in saying the Tavaputs project will occupy a "unique and sensitive" area that potentially has national significance and that protecting Nine Mile Canyon will require a "high level" of commitment from the BLM.


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com