(Kelsey Dayton/WyoFile — click to enlarge)
The Wyoming Range. Stakeholders have been waiting since 2006 for a decision on whether oil and gas leases sold before the passage of the Wyoming Range Legacy Act will be withdrawn from future development. (Kelsey Dayton/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Stakeholders await decision on Wyoming Range leases in limbo

by Kelsey Dayton
Kelsey Dayton
Kelsey Dayton

— April 15, 2014

A final decision on oil and gas leases hanging in limbo in the Wyoming Range since 2006 is expected in late spring of 2015.

The Bridger-Teton National Forest is again studying potential impacts of the development of parcels of land on the eastern slope of the Wyoming Range along the western portion of Sublette County.

“The decision to be made is whether the Forest Service objects or does not object to the Bureau of Land Management offering for sale oil and gas leases on these specific parcels, and under what terms and conditions,” said Forest Supervisor Clint Kyhl in a press release.

People have been waiting for this decision for eight years.

Oil and gas leasing on forest service land involves two agencies. The Forest Service evaluates the environmental impacts on the land and decides if the land can be leased. Once it’s approved from the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management auctions leases, according to Beverly Gorney, with the BLM. In 2004 the Bridger-Teton National Forest completed a study and decided the land was suitable for development and approved the BLM leasing the parcels.

(Kelsey Dayton/WyoFile — click to enlarge)
The fate of 33 oil and gas leases on the eastern slope of the Wyoming Range remains in question. (Kelsey Dayton/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

In 2006 the BLM auctioned 35 leases for the area and the highest bidding companies put up about $5 million in “bonus money,” administrative fees and first year rentals, to hold the leases. Since, conservationists challenged the Forest Service’s decision to allow development saying it hadn’t properly considered things like the impact on the Canadian lynx and because further study was needed before the land could be leased.

The fate of those leases hadn’t yet been decided when the Wyoming Range Legacy Act passed in 2009, withdrawing 1.2 million acres of surrounding land from leasing. Prior lease sales, including those that were in process, were exempt from the new law, which meant the leases from 2006 could still be developed — if the Forest Service decided the land was suitable.

In January 2011 the Forest Service said the parcels couldn’t be leased. The high-bidders for the leases, oil and gas organizations and the Sublette County Commissioners appealed in March 2011. In May 2011 the Forest Service withdrew its decision to allow for more analysis and consideration of the decision. It conducted its own internal analysis and determined the previous compilation evaluating environmental impacts were inadequate and that it would need to create a new document.

From the time the leases were questioned, companies had the opportunity to withdraw their bid and receive a refund, Gorney said. Freeport-McMoRan Oil & Gas (formerly known as Plains Exploration & Production Co.) received a $579,820.50 refund and withdrew two bids, she said. There are now 41,553 acres awaiting a decision from the Forest Service.

According to Gorney, the remaining 33 lease parcels are held suspended, while the 11 companies — Access Resources, Inc., Contex Energy Company, Exploration Geoconsultants, Impact Energy Resources LLC, Kerr-McGee Oil & Gas Onshore LP, Kirkwood Oil & Gas LLC, Samuel Butler III, Stanley Energy, Inc., Treasure Resources Inc., Van Bullock and Wold Oil Properties, Inc. – await a decision.

Despite some media reports, Gorney said the BLM has not spent the $4.3 million the companies paid, and said and if the Forest Service decides the land can’t be developed the BLM will refund the money, which has been sitting in an account until a decision is made.

While he doesn’t understand why there is a question about developing the area, the wait is worth it, said Peter Wold, President of Wold Oil Properties. The company bid on two leases for a total of 3,500 acres, he said. Wold believes the leases contain methane, carbon dioxide and helium.

The area is part of the LeBarge Platform known for its natural gas production and a structure other companies have successfully tapped. Wold thinks there is significant potential and could supply the new Riley Ridge Gas Plant.

The Wyoming State Geological Survey hasn’t conducted a resource assessment or published anything on the Wyoming Range, said Chamois Andersen, with the survey.

While the BLM hasn’t studied the potential in the area, the leases are located just West of defined oil and gas fields and several of the leases parcels are adjacent to existing federal oil and gas leases currently producing, Gorney said.

While the company bid on the leases several years before the Wyoming Range Legacy Act passed, Wold’s plans for developing the land comply with stipulations of the Wyoming Range including no surface occupancy, Wold said. The company is happy to take the leases with a no surface occupancy stipulation attached because they can reach the resources by drilling horizontally, down 15,000-feet, he said. Surface equipment is already installed to the east of the parcels within a mile, he said.

Wold said he and the company care about the environment. He loves to hunt and fish and is sensitive to preserving the areas in Wyoming where those are important. But he thinks the leases could be produced without damage to wildlife and habitat resources. He said he doesn’t understand why a decision hasn’t been made.

“It’s been a challenge for us to understand,” he said. “It’s a good thing we’ve got some other projects going or we would have died on the vine.”

In January 2013 the Trust for Public Land raised $8.75 million to buy and retire 58,000 acres of leases owned by Plains Exploration Company. Those leases are adjacent to the parcels in question. In a press release, those opposing the leasing said that while they understand Wyoming needs energy development, the proposed area isn’t worth the risk of impacting a unique area.

Another public buyout isn’t likely if the Forest Service decides the land can be leased, said Mike Burd, spokesman for the Citizens for the Wyoming Range.

“I think the bank’s closed,” he said.

He hopes that it won’t come to talking about another buy-out and the Forest Service will decide the land can’t be developed. He said he’s glad Kyhl is reviewing the data on the area, despite the Forest Service drawing out the process. The Forest Service should make an informed decision that won’t be challenged, he said.

Burd said he is hopeful the area won’ be developed. Burd, who lives in Green River, first visited the Wyoming Range when he was 12 years old. He’s returned regularly ever since and has watched his children and grandchildren catch their first fish in the mountains.

(Kelsey Dayton/WyoFile — click to enlarge)
The Wyoming Range is a prime area for hunting, fishing, and recreation. (Kelsey Dayton/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

The area is situated in prime hunting and fishing country and generates more than $5 million in revenue each year for the state, according to Steve Kilpatrick with the Wyoming Wildlife Federation. It’s an area important to mule deer migration and moose habitat.

The area is special, said Amy Rathke, the environmental stewardship coordinator with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).

“It really is the gateway to the range,” she said.

NOLS runs adventure courses in the Wyoming Range region out of Teton Valley, Idaho for teenagers, she said. That the Forest Service saying it is studying the area again is exciting because it means things are moving forward, she said. But it also offers a chance to remind people of how important the Wyoming Range is for recreation and wildlife.

“It’s a lot of folks’ backyard,” she said.

The Forest Service isn’t taking public comments at this time, but the extensive comments from throughout the years will be considered in preparing the new version, according to a press release. The public also will be able to comment on the project when the new draft is released in fall 2014. A draft Record of Decision will be released with a final plan and will be subject to the Forest Service objection process and those who have commented on the project can file objections. The Forest Service will respond to the objections before making a final decision. The final plan is expected in late spring of 2015.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide and the Casper Star Tribune. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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