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.
"It will help power the American economy," Salazar said.
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.
Natural gas production in the U.S. grew by more than 7 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The agency says that's 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.
Salazar and U.S. Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey praised Anadarko for working to protect the environment.
"Anadarko is one of those companies that get it," Abbey said.
The project is in an area where state and federal scientists are studying elevated wintertime air pollution, which has at times increased ozone levels to nearly double the limit considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It remains unclear how much emissions from drilling in the region are to blame for the bad air and how much of the pollution is caused by topography and weather.
Salazar said the Anadarko development will produce more than 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas from about 163,000 acres, but it will disturb only about 5 percent – or roughly 8,100 acres – of the surface area.
"At the end of the day, we all want the same thing – clean air, clean water and cheaper fuel," said Brad Holly, Anadarko's general manager on the project.
In contrast to the plan announced Tuesday, the federal government is poised to approve a nearby drilling project that would 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 writers Brian Skoloff and Josh Loftin contributed to this report.