SALT LAKE CITY -- U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday announced the approval of a major natural gas drilling project in Utah that the Obama administration says will support more than 4,000 jobs during its development while safeguarding critical wildlife habitat and air quality.
During an appearance outside Salt Lake City, Salazar said Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp. would be allowed to develop up to 3,675 new gas wells over the next decade in eastern Utah.
The move comes at a time when the Obama administration is under fire from critics who say his energy plan falls short and is hurting job growth and the economy with undue opposition to new drilling. The administration says the attacks are political rhetoric and that, in fact, natural gas production in the U.S. grew by more than 7 percent in 2011, what Obama officials say is the largest year-to-year increase in history, surpassing a previous production record set in 1973.
One of the five top producers of natural gas in the U.S., Anadarko is set to work in an area about 170 miles southeast of Salt Lake City near the Colorado border that has thousands of other wells. It's taking over some existing drill pads, with plans to use directional drilling to reach farther for gas pockets.
Anadarko agreed not to drill along the high cliffs of the White River, the last major free-flowing river on the Colorado Plateau. It also agreed to buy 640 acres of private land along the river for conservation, said Steve Bloch, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which worked with the Interior Department, along with the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, to reduce the project's impact.
In contrast to the negotiated deal, the federal government is poised to approve a nearby drilling project that will put more than 200 wells inside Desolation Canyon, a proposed wilderness area on the Green River, Bloch said.
"We're trying to keep the pressure on BLM to make changes," he said.
Interior officials said the new wells proposed under the plan would support an annual average of 1,709 direct jobs. During development, the project would support about 4,300 jobs, officials said.
While Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, applauded Tuesday's announcement, he also accused the Obama administration of repeatedly closing off more and more federal lands to energy production, a claim the administration has denied.
"Utahns have gotten used to the Obama Administration closing off federal lands to domestic energy production, so this announcement is a long time coming," Hatch said. "The fact is that much more has to be done to open up more of our state's land to development."
Associated Press writer Brian Skoloff contributed to this report.