Conservation groups celebrate buyout of Wyoming Range oil and gas leases

By Kelsey Dayton

Conservation groups and activists are celebrating today at the announcement of a deal to buy leases for drilling natural gas wells in the Wyoming Range. Gov. Matt Mead announced Plains Exploration and Production Co. has entered an agreement with the Trust for Public Lands to sell oil and gas leases on 58,000 acres of land in the Wyoming Range.

Dan Smitherman, an ex-marine and horseback rider, describes himself as an “anti-tree hugger.” Yet he’s found himself in an unusual position as a leading activist in a movement to prevent the drilling of 136 gas wells on 17 pads in the Wyoming Range. (Kelsey Dayton/WyoFile — click to enlarge)
Dan Smitherman, an ex-marine and horseback rider, describes himself as an “anti-tree hugger.” Yet he’s found himself in an unusual position as a leading activist in a movement to prevent the drilling of 136 gas wells on 17 pads in the Wyoming Range. (Kelsey Dayton/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

The acreage was home to a contentious plan to drill 136 wells, which generated a record number of almost 60,000 comments during the planning process.

Dan Smitherman, who has led the Citizens for the Wyoming Range, sent an email to members of the activist group, beginning, “Today is one of the best days of my life …”

A buy out has always been the ultimate goal, Smitherman said in an interview with Wyofile.

“It’s the best thing that could happen for Wyoming,” he said. “I can’t think of a scenario that would have been any better.”

A lease buyout has always been hoped for, but in May the citizens group launched the campaign, “Houston, we have a problem,” encouraging people to email PXP and urge the company to sell its leases. The campaign generated an estimated 30,000 emails to the company.

The sale includes not just leases in the Noble Basin, but all of the PXP leases on the Bridger-Teton National Forest as well as leases on private lands and in the south rim area. The leases on the forest will be retired forever under the Wyoming Legacy Act and the citizens group is working with the state and BLM to protect the private land, Smitherman said in email to the group.

In a statement released by PXP, Steve Rusch, vice president of environmental, health and safety and government affairs for the company, said the sale was “win-win.”

“From the first day the Legacy Act was passed, PXP has repeatedly stated our willingness to consider a buy out of our lease position if a valid offer was tendered. Today’s announcement fulfills that pledge,” he said in the statement.

“(The Public Land Trust) reached out to PXP and subsequent discussions exemplify the types of successes that can be realized when diverse parties seek to find common ground,” he said.

PXP has shifted away from low-margin natural gas in recent years, moving toward higher-priced oil.

“The long term outlook for natural gas prices remains mixed,” he said in the statement.

It was a culmination of efforts that made it possible, said Dan Bailey of Citizens for the Wyoming Range. Bailey told Wyofile that natural gas prices have depressed and stayed low. There was also constant pressure from the citizens group, he said.

Bailey said he sometimes doubted a buy-out would happen.

“There were times, early on, I’d go to bed at night with tears in my eyes, worried,” he said.

Still, he stayed hopeful, and even wagered a drink with a doubting neighbor if buyout ever did happen.

“I’m collecting on that drink,” Bailey said Friday.

The big celebration though is on hold.

The next step is to raise money. The Trust for Public Land is working to raise an additional $4.25 million by December 31 for $8.75 million buyout.

Donors have already stepped up, said Lisa McGee with the Wyoming Outdoor Council. The council has long been involved in efforts to protect the Wyoming Range from development. Some donors were involved in the efforts to raise money so the Trust for Public Lands could put up the capital and make the offer. Since the announcement went public today others are pledging financial support.

McGee expected most conservation and sportsmen groups with interest in the area would be working on fundraising for the money. If half the people who wrote letters opposing the drilling project to the Forest Service each made a $150 pledge – the cost to buy one acre – the goal would be reached, she said.

While groups like the council are already in fundraising mode, they are taking a moment to celebrate what some are calling a historic buyout.

“It’s a great feeling and testament to so many good people working so hard for so many years,” McGee said. “It’s just a great day.”

— Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com.

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Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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