Sen. Eli Bebout in the Senate chambers. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

A powerful state senator chided environmental regulators Thursday after they proposed tightening the amount of pollutants a company can release from the Moneta Divide gas- and oilfield.

Former Senate president and current chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) wrote the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality saying members of his appropriations committee are concerned the agency will “backtrack” on agreements they made with Aethon Energy. The DEQ originally proposed renewing a discharge permit that would allow the company to dump 8.2 million gallons of tainted water a day into drainages above Boysen Reservoir. (See letter below.)

The original renewal also would have allowed the company to pump more than 1,000 of tons each of sodium and sulfate a month into flows from the Moneta Divide field. Aethon and Burlington Resources want to expand the 800-well field by 4,250 wells.

But after public hearings and more than 450 comments, the DEQ instead proposed a permit with stricter controls. The revised permit would maintain the previous flow limits to around 2 million gallons a day, cap the salt (sodium and sulfate) output at 908 tons a month and limit the concentration of chloride in the discharged water.

The revised permit also would have nine new requirements that are not part of Aethon’s existing discharge authorization at the Moneta Divide.

Bebout wrote that Aethon contacted committee members about the proposed new permit and that the committee wants to ensure “fundamental principles of fairness.” The committee also wants to see that the DEQ meets its mission that calls, in part, for the agency “to plan the development and use of the resources of the State” and retain state control over its air, land and water.

“It has been stated to us that extensive meetings and modeling efforts and an initial draft permit was agreed to by the DEQ and the permit holder, and that the initial draft was in fact defended by the DEQ,” Bebout’s letter reads. “If this is correct it is difficult to understand how the Division can require new conditions, especially if the new conditions are a departure from existing and historic processes as claimed by the permit holder.

“Primary among our concerns is that the State not backtrack on agreements reached in the permitting process,” Bebout’s letter reads.

Senator in oil, gas business

Bebout is chairman and president of Nucor Oil & Gas and chairman and vice president of Nucor, Inc/Nucor Drilling, Inc, both Riverton companies, according to state disclosure forms. Nucor Inc/Nucor Drilling Inc holds a contract with the DEQ’s Abandoned Mine Land Division, according to Bebout’s disclosures. DEQ paid Bebout’s Nucor companies more than $35 million for work between 2013 and 2018, according to Open the Books, a public-interest organization that tracks state payments.

His senate district covers large parts of Fremont County, where most of the Moneta Divide gas and oilfield is located, but appears to stop short of the field itself.

An Aethon pump jack in the Moneta Divide oil and gas field east of Shoshoni. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Regulations clearly contemplate that a draft permit can be changed following public input. They require that the DEQ respond to public comments. DEQ responses must say which provisions of the draft are being changed and why. Similarly, the agency must also document why any comments did not result in a change. DEQ must make all that information public.

“We are concerned that Senator Bebout, an oilman himself, would write this letter to DEQ on state letterhead in his capacity as Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, which oversees DEQ’s budget,” the Powder River Basin Resource Council said in a statement to WyoFile. “It makes the letter look like an attempt to bully and intimidate the Department into approving a permit.

“Unfortunately, Senator Bebout fails to look at the facts. The photos and the water quality data from the discharge of this oil and gas wastewater clearly shows there is a serious pollution problem that has damaged these streams and threatens the water quality of Boysen Reservoir and the Wind River,” the letter reads. “Science and the law, not political conflict of interest, must rule in order to protect our water.”

Bebout rejected the council’s assertions. “I have no interest in Moneta Divide,” he told WyoFile. “I have an interest to represent my constituents. In fact our statutes say that absent any obviously personal conflict, which I do not have, I’m obligated to represent my constituents which is exactly what I’m doing.

“I will continue to do that and I will use letterhead stationary to do that,” Bebout said. He was elected to represent his constituents, not the Powder River Basin Resource Council, he said.

“As far as their comments about me failing to look at the facts, I would say they don’t look at the facts,” he continued. Aethon and others did a lot of study, he said, but after proposing the first permit renewal, regulators “moved the goalposts.”

He touted the economic potential of an expanded Moneta Divide field, projected to raise millions in tax money for the county, state and schools. All that will occur “in a very sound, responsible manner,” Bebout said. “They’ve been doing it that way for 50 years.”

“What the Powder River Basin Resource Council ought to do is go to a meeting in Riverton and talk to all the people there,” Bebout said. “Don’t talk to me about some letterhead.” 

Bebout said he hasn’t worked for Aethon lately but would welcome the chance to do so.

Today is the deadline for comment on the revised draft renewal permit. DEQ has twice rejected requests by conservation groups to extend the comment deadline for the revised draft renewal permit. The agency granted one extension on the original renewal request last year.

Original plan drew criticism

Many commenters sought changes to Aethon’s permit during the original renewal review. DEQ logged 453 comments last summer in response to the original renewal proposal. Many opposed the discharge plan or called for changes according to a WyoFile review of the records. Hearings in Riverton and Thermopolis collectively drew more than 300 people.

An Aethon representative wrote that the permit satisfies regulations and is more protective compared to previous authorizations. But others raised questions, including Thermopolis Mayor Mike Chimenti who asked in a letter “why is it okay to use our water sources as dumping grounds for waste?”

Thermopolis Mayor Mike Chimenti works on the DEQ permit at his desk in Town Hall. He was one of several public officials who got the state agency to hold hearings on the plan to dump oil and gas field pollutants into waterways above the town’s water supply. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Agriculture could be at risk, others said, including the Hot Springs Conservation District which challenged a claim that the flows meet the requirement to be of beneficial use.

Bebout said that requirement for discharges had been met. “The surface discharge of water from the field involved in this application has apparently been put to beneficial use for livestock and wildlife for decades,” his letter reads.

The Conservation district has a different view. “Our concern is that farmers and ranchers utilizing the discharged water in the Moneta Divide area, for irrigation, may in the long term, cause soils to become so salinized that they are no longer suitable for agricultural or wildlife purposes,” wrote Sonja L Becker, chairwoman of the district.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department also questioned the benefit of the tainted water. DEQ found discharges carried an average of around 2,200 milligrams per liter of chloride. 

In the new permit, it wants Aethon to reduce that to 230 mg/L, the standard for Badwater Creek, the recipient of the discharged water, under state rules. DEQ also found free oil, foam, and black sediment below discharges and wrote Aethon to say it had violated its discharge permit. (See related story.)

Produced water discharges may be responsible for “the lack of fish” in Badwater Creek downstream from where pollution flows in from Alkali Creek, Wyoming Game and Fish Department wrote.

Some oppose Aethon’s original dumping proposal because the flows would go into Boysen State Park. Allowing the dumping of 8.2 million gallons a day of pollutants into such recreational waters “goes counter to your mission,” the Hot Springs Conservation District wrote of Aethon’s original plan.

DEQ would “violate its own regulations,” added the Hot Springs County Natural Resources Planning Committee. It called Aethon’s original plan “unacceptable” and a detriment to downstream agriculture because of salinity.

Discharges would flow into the Wind River Reservation, tribal member Micah Carpenter-Lott wrote, “putting Wyoming’s most vulnerable people at risk for short-lived gains.” Wyoming and its grandchildren require long-term care and respect, international angling innovator Yvon Chouinard wrote. “Do no harm isn’t for doctors alone,” his comment reads.

Bebout only signer

Bebout’s fellow committee member Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson) provided WyoFile the text of Bebout’s letter. 

Bebout wrote Gierau that the correspondence was “[a] comment letter I sent out on Moneta Divide as Chairman of the Senate Apps. Committee, but not the committee.” The letter itself, obtained by WyoFile through a records request, is on Senate Appropriations Committee stationery. “It was merely to highlight my title,” Bebout’s email to Gierau reads.

Shoshoni’s Main Street is a poster child for Fremont County’s economic challenges, often photographed as a place that changing times and a fast-paced world left behind. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Bebout signed the letter above his appropriations committee title. 

“Senator Bebout told us about the letter” Gierau wrote WyoFile. “As stated, we as a group had discussed the situation. Based on what I have been told I too am concerned about how we were told how this all went down.”

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Bebout wrote the DEQ that he understood the agency defended the initial draft. “If this is correct it is difficult to understand how the Division can require new conditions,” his letter reads, “especially if the new conditions are a departure from existing and historic processes as claimed by the permit holder.”

He complained that DEQ is now proposing impossible limits, writing that Aethon asserts that “laboratory methods do not exist to measure compliance with at least one” of the new proposed standards. 

Aethon did not respond over the weekend or on Presidents Day to an email asking for clarification regarding that standard. The DEQ also did not respond over two and a half business days to requests for comments on the new permit and its process for adopting it.

Andrew Graham contributed to this story.


Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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11 Comments

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  1. Bebout and Riverton residents that support the Moneta Divide waste water disposal permit, all live upstream, above the discharge area. Wonder if they would support this proposal if the discharge was allowed upstream of their municipal and irrigation diversions. Bebout probably would still be a proponent, but far fewer of his constituents would be supportive. Bebout has a history of unabashed and enthusiastic support of any extractive development in Wyoming regardless the cost to the citizens, environment, or future generations. He is very much a representative of Corporate “Robber Barons” at the expense of normal Wyoming residents.

  2. Boysen does not belong to Riverton and the water stored there does not belong to Riverton. Boysen is Wyomimg’s playground, water source for the Big Horn Basin and an important water for our nation. The discharge would flow into Boysen near Tough Creek Campground and drift along by the Marina…and the heavy metals, salt and toxins would settle in our County’s playground and fishery. The class 1 river Boysen feeds belong to the Tribes.

  3. It’s no surprise that Sen. Bebout stands up for oil and gas development. He’s made a living in the business, on the production end and, obviously, the clean-up end. He’s willing to sacrifice the environment for production and the accompanying tax revenues.

    He is entitled to his opinion, but using committee stationery without a vote of the committee authorizing the letter is bad process. The Senate Rules Committee should admonish him.

    Meanwhile, others who believe we need clean water for drinking in Thermopolis and productive farms should come to the defense of the DEQ’s actions with this permit. Aetheon should see protecting the environment as one of the costs of doing business. Many other companies do.

  4. Abridged, but I think a still accurate version of the letter:

    “Dear DEQ,
    We (and by ‘we’ I mean me, Eli Bebout, the sole signatory of this letter) are concerned that Aethon Energy (Our [My] potential future business partner) is not having their voice heard related to their position on the permitting process over the huge clamor coming from hundreds of affected Wyoming citizens, entities, and stakeholders, a great deal of whom live in my Senate District, virtually all of whom are deeply concerned about severe pollution of their sources of water for drinking, agriculture, recreation, and local wildlife such as fish (Which are already struggling to survive in the affected waters due to existing pollution from Aethon).

    We ( I, Eli Bebout) believe Aethon worked really really hard and at significant expense, to misrepresent in completely bad faith the levels and effects of massively increased pollution to these water sources in order to secure initial approval by DEQ for a permit that would allow them to massively increase pollution of said water sources. As such, we (Eli Bebout) do declare that Wyoming DEQ actually shouldn’t listen to the hundreds of stakeholders, including hundreds of my own constituents, by revising the permit restrictions in accordance with the relevant laws that Aethon does not prefer. Instead DEQ should ignore all those people, and should instead listen to us, (Eli Bebout and my potential lucrative future business partner Aethon Energy), because, you know. Money!
    Sincerely,
    Us (Eli Bebout)”

    1. Well done !!
      We recently bought a tract on the little popo-Aggie and it is downstream from oil production. Well let’s just say the oil production floats by . The river bed is littered with oil balls some the size of footballs . After closing we went down to see the river and immediately called the federal EPA and was sent to WEP locally . This lead us to the disclosure that that’s just the way it is hear. Being from Texas we are mineral owners and have production on our land . Any contamination of land or waterways is UN acceptable . The development of God given resources should not be allowed to poison our children !

  5. “Science and the la w, not political conflict of interest, must rule in order to protect our water.” Senator Bebout was a Democrat until Governor Sullivan (WY-D) opposed the then House Representative’s nuclear waste permitting in Fremont County. The substantive comments DEQ received during the open comment period showed an incredible response by the agriculture community, sportsman, conservation community, affected citizens and yes , Wyoming’s environmental watchdogs. I have worked in the proposed field (Conoco 90-92) and it is next Salt Creek, some of the abused historic oilfield in Wyoming, and needs the 2020 attainable control and monitoring on discharge to our waters.

  6. Thank you Angus for speaking truth to power. I wonder if most Wyoming legislators know what “conflict of interest” means. Bullying is pretty easy to spot nowadays, unfortunately, some folks think it’s cool or clever. It’s not.

  7. Wyoming is the only State in the Union that does not have primacy for managing its drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) so the EPA Region 8 has to do that job. I view that decision with a great deal of cynicism. Now Wyoming does have one program under the SDWA that it does administer and that is Underground Injection Control (UIC). So Wyoming’s priority with the DEQ is ensuring that tainted wastewater is “properly disposed” under the purview of the WYDEQ, but overseeing that drinking water safe for the citizens, then meh, it cannot be bothered.

    At one time citizens used to be able to trust that their DEQs or DNRs or State EPA’s would do the right thing and administer the rules as written by Washington DC and if they did not the Federal EPA would step in. Once Flint Michigan occurred and Obama’s EPA did not step in to take over Michigan’s program, then those in power, in each of the States, realized that complying with pollution requirements are optional.

    I have no insight or evidence that WYDEQ is not doing its job, but usually when an agency does do its job too well then those in power will propose some way to limit their effectiveness. Arizona did this to their EPA by moving the EPA offices around to different areas in the state so the good people would quit or just not do the job well. Republicans have learned this technique as they are moving critical jobs concerning land management or science based programs out of DC and into to the West. I have seen this show too many times to believe they have best interests of science or protecting citizens when taking these actions.

  8. Just what could be expected of the “noble” senator.

    Nice shot of the falling-down furniture store in Shoshoni. Several other old buildings in town were demolished not that long ago. Depending on booms and busts is insanity, but town government has the illness, and the accompanying delusions of grandeur. Won’t be many decades before there are new old buildings that will be falling down and in need of demolition…

  9. Sen. Bebout does not run DEQ or the Emnvironmental Quality Council, although his being in positions of power as to their funding, I imagine he has used his power to indirectly do so. Contracts with DEQ has lined his pockets well. But I guess abuse of power for personal gain is just the way it is now? DEQ should be commended for doing what it should be doing to protect our water. Without unpolluted water Wyoming would be what?