Reprinted with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC.
Not for republication by Wyoming media.

The Forest Service is reversing a controversial decision to cancel valid oil and natural gas drilling leases on 44,720 acres of Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest that are prized by outdoor enthusiasts and environmentalists.

Bridger-Teton Supervisor Jacque Buchanan announced last week that she had rescinded a Jan. 25 record of decision (ROD) canceling 23 drilling leases because the agency failed to, among other things, include key details about the kinds of impacts the oil and gas drilling would have in the Wyoming Range area. The Forest Service will now go back and conduct additional analysis to inform a follow-up decision on the withdrawals.

“Withdrawing the record of decision will allow further evaluation of several key issues, including, but not limited to, the potential impacts to air quality, lynx habitat and mule deer migration routes,” Buchanan said in a statement.

The decision comes amid mounting pressure from Republicans in Congress and industry officials who have argued that Buchanan’s decision violated federal law and would have a chilling effect on Wyoming’s economic development.

A coalition of energy companies and their trade group, the Western Energy Alliance, along with the Sublette County Commission, appealed Buchanan’s decision, arguing it violated the National Forest Management Act, among others.

And last month, leaders of the Congressional Western Caucus wrote a letter to Buchanan asking her to reconsider her decision. The leaders, including U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), wrote that canceling the leases “takes a dangerous step to reduce America’s energy security, tramples on the property and contract rights of private companies, and prevents the development of oil and gas reserves.”

Cheryl Sorenson, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming in Casper, said Buchanan made the right call. “These leases have the ability to be developed in an environmentally friendly way that will protect sensitive species, along with water and air quality,” Sorenson said.

In announcing her decision in January, Buchanan cited “the combination of the sensitivity and values of the area, the magnitude of other activities currently under way or planned with potentially cumulative impacts, and the concerns of citizens, organizations and other agencies,” as the primary causes behind the cancellation decision.

Environmentalists and outdoor recreation groups say they are cautiously optimistic that the additional environmental analysis will lead the agency to the same conclusion.

Drilling opponents are also encouraged by the Forest Service’s decision to take a closer look at the air quality impacts of new wells in the Wyoming Range.

Air quality has become a significant environmental issue in southwest Wyoming, and Sublette County in particular, after ground-level ozone last winter exceeded federal health-based standards on 13 days, with pollution levels in the rural area rivaling those of large urban areas on some days.

“We’re confident that additional review will further reinforce what the Forest Service learned during their initial review, that energy development in this area, where local residents have hunted, fished, camped and horse-packed for generations, will forever diminish the outdoor opportunities found there,” said Steven Brutger, Trout Unlimited’s Wyoming Energy Coordinator in Lander, Wyo. “Simply put, the Wyoming Range is much more valuable for its habitat and fish and game than for its energy reserves.”

Cathy Purvis, Trout Unlimited’s science and technical officer in Lander, added that “with nearly 40,000 producing wells in the state,” there is no real need for the new wells, and that “preserving this area will have no impact on oil and gas production in Wyoming or the U.S.”

Scott Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.

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  1. Only a damn fool would be optimistic about the reasons stated for withdrawing the decision (we need a deeper look) and about the next decision (it’ll be OK to drill). This is pure hardball politics, but the environmental groups here quoted are refusing to admit it. One reason environmental groups are no more trustworthy than industry or government. They’ll cave with the least pressure.