SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is set to approve 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.
Interior officials told The Associated Press on Tuesday morning that Salazar planned to announce later in Salt Lake City the approval of 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.
The project will be developed by Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp., which agreed to keep wells off proposed wilderness areas along the White River. It also agreed to buy lands along the river corridor for conservation easements.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council said they worked to reduce the project's impact.
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.