PRB plan may threaten elk

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net

By Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

Environmentalists blasted federal plans for allowing nearly 500 new coal-bed methane wells in northeast Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, arguing that the proposal imperils an elk herd and threatens the area’s wild character.

At issue is a U.S. Bureau of Land Management draft plan for the 100,000-acre Fortification Creek area, which environmentalists call an “oasis” for wildlife within one of the nation’s most prolific gas fields.

BLM’s draft plan would allow “performance-based” development of billions of cubic feet of natural gas as long as elk numbers are maintained along with sufficient “security habitat.”

“If the BLM adopts any of the proposed alternatives … the nature of the Fortification Creek Area will markedly and significantly change for decades to come,” said Shannon Anderson, an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a group of more than 1,000 landowners.

Fortification Creek elk

Environmentalists have criticized a draft plan by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, saying it could harm some of the 400 elk living year-round in the Fortification Creek area. (courtesy photo/click to enlarge)

There are currently more than 25,000 coal-bed methane wells around the Fortification Creek Area, including more than 400 within the elk herd’s yearlong range that have been permitted within the past year and a half, according to the group.

“BLM has prioritized the protection of this area for decades,” said retired biologist Larry Gerard, who spent more than 30 years at BLM’s Buffalo Field Office. “They have proposed to dramatically change things and negatively impact wildlife habitat and other resources.”

Ryan Lance, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D), said  that Wyoming was “generally favorable to the plan,” but stressed the draft needs dedicated corporate or federal funding for monitoring the elk herd.

Lance said industry could help fund a third-party review of wildlife just as operators pay for mitigation and monitoring in western Wyoming’s prolific Jonah and Pinedale Anticline gas fields.

But industry funding “doesn’t mean they control the process,” he said.

The BLM plan would also ban drilling on steep and highly erosive soils unless a company can demonstrate an effective reclamation plan, and no drilling will be permitted in a 12,000-acre wilderness study area.

BLM said industry officials are applauding the agency’s performance-based proposal over a more restrictive approach that has curbed development activity in the past.

The agency’s draft environmental assessment — an amendment to the Buffalo Field Office’s resource management plan — would reduce projected gas production in the area by roughly a third, from 726 wells to 483 wells. New roads in the planning area would likely be cut in half, and total overhead power lines would be reduced by almost 90 percent.

Four operators — Marathon Oil Corp./Pennaco Energy Inc., Lance Oil & Gas Co., Comet Energy Services LLC and Yates Petroleum Corp. — own virtually all federal mineral leases in the area.

Each well in the area produces about 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas, making the area one of the richest gas deposits in the Powder River Basin, said Duane Spencer, manager for BLM’s Buffalo Field Office.

More than 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas may lie beneath the planning area, Spencer said.

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Published on November 23, 2010

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