Why SUWA Decided to Compromise with the Bill Barrett Corporation on the West Tavaputs Plateau

Recently, a number of SUWA supporters (and detractors) have asked us why we decided to compromise with the Bill Barrett Corporation (BBC) regarding its proposed West Tavaputs Plateau natural gas development. You can read our press release about the agreement here.

In short, we did it because it was the best thing for wilderness and for protecting the incomparable Desolation Canyon.

Probably the best way to understand this is to compare side-by-side the map of BBC’s 2008 proposed full field development and the map of the company’s 2010 contracted development proposal that was ultimately approved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The first map shows extensive oil and gas development in an area proposed for wilderness designation in America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act and even BLM-designated wilderness study areas (the small grey squares are proposed well pads and the dashed orange lines are new roads; basically every well proposed northeast and southeast of the label “Peter’s Point Mesa” is within proposed wilderness). BBC’s original development proposal would have resulted in over two hundred new well pads inside of proposed wilderness.

The final compromise map tells a different story: no wells in the Desolation Canyon or Jack Canyon wilderness study areas, no wells on the vast majority of Horse Bench, and four new gates preventing vehicular access on ways that reach into this terrain.

A reality not to be overlooked was that before SUWA came onto the scene (e.g. before 1985), the BLM had already issued leases inside of the Desolation Canyon and Jack Canyon wilderness study areas; in fact, those leases predate the wilderness study areas. Furthermore, BLM had also issued—long ago—leases on the amazing Horse Bench, a key part of America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act in the upper Desolation Canyon complex. The fact that BBC had leases in these areas changed the ground rules—the company had a legal right to some degree of development on those leases, regardless of our proposed wilderness designations.

Of course, we were willing to fight to make things very difficult and painful for the company in developing those leases. Indeed, as the Bush administration rushed out the door in 2008, we were successful in blocking new leasing by the federal government in this precise area. However, we decided to engage with BBC in the hope that we could reach an outcome more favorable to wilderness protection in this area than could be accomplished through protracted legal battles.

We think that we found just such an outcome here. After extensive negotiations involving give and take on both sides, we were able reach an accord preventing oil and gas wells in wilderness study areas and drastically reducing the number of proposed wells on Horse Bench. Fortunately, BBC was a willing partner. We were unlikely to have ever achieved such significant on-the-ground gains without this agreement.

To be clear, it is never easy to agree to new development in proposed wilderness, even if that means only a half-dozen new wells from an original proposal of hundreds. We struggled and sweated over this agreement for months and months. We are not in the business of saying “yes” to development in America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act. But, in this case, the outcome for wilderness indicates that it was better to swallow a few wells on the periphery of our proposal than to lose vast chunks of wilderness-quality land to development. 

The Desolation Canyonwilderness is one of the most stunning landscapes in the lower forty-eight states. We believe that this agreement with the Bill Barrett Corporation makes wilderness designation one step closer to becoming a reality.

David Garbett, Staff Attorney
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance