SALT LAKE CITY -- An energy company received federal approval Thursday to take natural gas from a largely untouched, picturesque region of Utah by agreeing to use new technology to drill under wild areas instead of on top of them.
The Bureau of Land Management's approval of Bill Barrett Corp.'s multibillion-dollar project reflects a deal the drilling company made with environmental groups to pull back from wild areas and limit well pads off the high rim of the Green River's Desolation Canyon.
That canyon, a National Historic Landmark inside one of the Lower 48's largest roadless areas, has seen little change since explorer John Wesley Powell remarked on "a region of wildest desolation" while boating the river in 1896.
The area is populated by elk, deer and bighorn sheep, and bear maulings of river runners are not uncommon.
Along the river's western ramparts, Bill Barrett plans to use 120 well pads instead of the 538 it originally proposed, and it will drill directionally instead of straight down to get at the gas pockets in one of Utah's biggest natural gas fields.
It also plans to drill fewer wells than planned -- 626 instead of 807 -- and hide them into folds of the landscape.
Development activity will be limited during summer so rafters on the Green River can't spy the company's trucks or rigs from thousands of feet below.
"We think it's one of the most environmentally progressive natural gas projects," said Duane Zavadil, a vice president for Bill Barrett Corp.
Shares of the Denver-based company climbed $2.80, or 8.7 percent, to $34.91 on Thursday.
Bill Barrett's operations in the region called the West Tavaputs Plateau will span 28 square miles.
That footprint shrunk from 83 square miles as originally conceived, according to government figures confirmed by the company.
The amount of land that will be disturbed for roads and drilling equipment was cut by more than half, to 1,600 acres, or 2 1/2 square miles.
The company's presence on land will come close to some proposed wilderness borders, then stop.
But it can drill laterally, sight unseen, for nearly a mile -- a reach that could lengthen as drilling technology improves, Zavadil said.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar hailed the company's compromise and called the agreement historic.
"It clearly provides for the orderly and balanced development of our nation's energy supply while, at the same time, serving as an outstanding example of the fresh look of how we can better manage our energy resources," Salazar said in a written statement.
Bill Barrett dropped plans to develop wells around Jack Canyon, a tributary to the Green River, where the steep, rugged terrain is dotted with dense pinion and juniper trees and visited by a herd of wild horses.
Jack Canyon is a candidate for wilderness protection, but because it has a well head that was drilled years ago, it was considered fair game for more development.
Now, Jack Canyon will be left untouched.