Obama Administration Endorses Plans to Drill in the Utah Wilderness



The Obama administration decided today to back a proposal to allow nearly 1,300 new oil and gas drilling wells in Utah’s Desolation Canyon region, impacting over 200,000 acres of wildlands. The sheer scope of the project, if approved, will have untold negative and permanent impacts on this wild region’s incredible beauty. The fact that the administration is nearly poised to allow drilling in one of the nation’s largest unprotected wilderness strongholds, begs a whole series of questions though.

As discussed last September, NRDC was tracking troubling developments regarding the future of the Desolation Canyon wilderness area as managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These developments basically boiled down to the fact that BLM was entertaining the notion of approving plans by Colorado based Gasco Energy, to drastically expand drilling into the Desolation Canyon wildlands. This was troubling on a number of fronts. For one, such a proposal was at odds with BLM’s legal responsibility not to consider projects that impair lands with wilderness value. Second, the broader region where Gasco was contemplating additional drilling – the Uintah Basin of Utah – was already under notice given that thousands of active drilling operations in the basin were creating massive air pollution problems. The pollution in the region had become so severe the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared in 2010 that the Uintah Basin had the worst air quality in the nation (even worse than such regions as Los Angeles or Atlanta). This was all the more remarkable given that less than 8,000 people call the Uintah Basin home. If not for this small population, the region would have been slapped with a nonattainment order by the EPA – a standard reserved for urban regions – and a standard that usually requires an offending region to take meaningful steps to reduce harmful emissions.

Desolation Canyon proposed wilderness area 2-thumb-500x314-4083.jpg

Given these concerns, EPA gave BLM’s environmental analysis of the project the agency’s worst possible rating. Not only did EPA take the dimmest of views regarding the Gasco proposal, EPA and the conservation community proposed a separate alternative that would require Gasco to take steps to ensure that drilling could not take place in or near the Desolation Canyon wilderness. Unbelievably, with today’s announcement, the BLM has not only rejected the consensus approach embraced by EPA, NRDC, and its conservation partners, the BLM has proposed a new alternative that was not even contemplated in the agency’s original environmental analysis. In fact, BLM’s new preferred alternative actually increases the amount of drilling in the Desolation Canyon wilderness area far beyond even what was proposed by Gasco. For instance, the company’s original alternative nominated 222 active wells in the Desolation Canyon wilderness area, resulting in the fragmentation of 6,405 acres of wilderness.  BLM’s new alternative proposes seven fewer active wells for a total of 215, but increases the amount of wilderness to be impacted by 32%. With BLM’s new alternative, 9,466 acres of wilderness in the Desolation Canyon would be trashed (see comparison chart).

Comparison of Alternatives In Regard to Wilderness Encroachment


Company Proposed Alternative

(Alt A)

EPA/Citizen Recommended Alternative

(Alt E)

BLM Preferred Alternative

(Alt F)

Disturbed Wilderness Acres




Fragmentation of Wilderness




# of Wells in Wilderness




The signal sent by this administration is clearly confounding and troubling. Interior Secretary Salazar has spent much of his tenure rightfully promoting the conservation of America’s Great Outdoors. But how can that be reconciled with a proposal that would turn some of the nation’s most iconic lands into an industrial wasteland. If this administration is ready to despoil a wilderness area the likes of Desolation Canyon, and for so little in return, are there any places in this country that can be considered truly safe from this all of the above drilling mentality.

(Photo credits: Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance)


Go to NRDC's BioGems website to take online action to communicate to the administration and the Department of Interior that they must stand strong in protecting wilderness lands like Desolation Canyon.