A drill rig in Converse County. (David Korzilius/BLM/FlickrCC)

The Trump administration violated environmental and planning laws when it OK’d a Delaware-sized oil and gas field in Converse County, endangering raptors and 54 greater sage grouse breeding-ground leks, two conservation groups allege in a lawsuit.

Powder River Basin Resource Council and Western Watersheds Project filed the complaint in federal court in Washington, D.C. last month, claiming then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt rigged the approval of the 5,000-well project “to relieve the fossil fuel industry from federal environmental safeguards.” The 68-page filing names the Interior Department and U.S. Bureau of Land Management as defendants and seeks to reverse the approval.

Bernhardt authorized 1,500 well pads, 2,900 miles of pipeline, 1,970 miles of roads and 1,500 miles of electrical lines for a development that could generate 69.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses a year. The development across 1.5 million acres of private and public land over 10 years would produce 1.2% of the country’s annual release of the pollutant, the suit contends.

The suit comes at a time when the country’s energy future is clouded by the war in Ukraine, domestic inflation, environment-altering climate change and the legacy of Trump’s energy independence policy. The firing of a federal environmental specialist who objected to environmental shortcomings of the Converse County Oil & Gas Project tainted the project, a government-employee-watchdog group says and conservationists are calling for strict scrutiny of the Biden administration’s new proposal to lease another 251,087 acres for oil and gas development in Wyoming.

“In their stampede to fast-track fossil fuel production in northeast Wyoming, the Bureau of Land Management has tossed aside all the usual and customary wildlife habitat protections.”

Erik Molvar, Western Watersheds Project

Fossil-fuel supporters, however, reject assertions that the approval of the Converse County project in 2020 was in any way rushed or deleterious to wildlife.

The project’s environmental review, Ryan McConnaughey, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming told WyoFile, is “a poster child for what thoughtful and collaborative work should be.”

Stampede

Bernhardt’s authorization allows an “unprecedented level of development,” creating significant impacts to residents and wildlife, Converse County denizen and PRBRC board member Maria Katherman said in a statement. Western Watersheds believes the BLM “tossed aside all the usual and customary wildlife habitat protections” in a “stampede to fast-track fossil fuel production in northeast Wyoming,” Executive Director Erik Molvar said in a statement that labeled the development a “fossil-fuel boondoggle.”

The conservationists asked the court to undo the approval and declare that the government has the authority to regulate wells on private property, and air-polluting discharges — two elements Bernhardt claimed he couldn’t control. The groups also target recently issued individual well-drilling permits and may ask the court to halt development as the suit is considered.

The Converse County Oil and Gas Project, center right, covers about 2.5% of Wyoming. (Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.)

Approval of the development followed a review that included a “complete analysis of greenhouse gas,” McConnaughey said. The plan “maintains all sage grouse protections under the Wyoming sage grouse protection strategy and fully complies with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act as interpreted by the Obama administration,” he said.

Development will be a boon to local, state and national coffers, he said. The BLM said the project would create 8,000 jobs and $18 billion to $28 billion in federal revenues alone. The environmental review considered the impacts and benefits over a 10-year field life.

Among the five claims made in the suit, the conservationists pointed first to an inadequate analysis of environmental consequences. Those include inaccurate estimates of groundwater needed to develop the field and a “misleading and incomplete” review of air pollution.

The suit faults the government for postponing site-specific and detailed review of individual wells and then approving 377 applications to drill those wells without further and necessary analysis.

The Converse County Oil and Gas Project violates federal planning rules by not complying with the BLM’s own plans to preserve greater sage grouse, including by limiting areas scarred by development and making up for ground lost to construction, the lawsuit contends. By discarding rules that keep development away from raptor nests during sensitive breeding and nesting seasons, federal agencies violated their duties to avoid “unnecessary or undue degradation,” the complaint states.

Finally, Bernhardt claimed he had no authority to regulate pollution and other impacts from wells drilled on private land, even if those wells extract oil and gas under federal property. The two groups called Bernhardt’s assertion “legally erroneous.”

Active nests

Conservationists’ objections to the now-issued individual drilling permits and the process to obtain them are hollow, McConnaughey said. “I think there’s an opportunity for these people to protest those individual permits,” he said, “yet these groups have decided to challenge the whole project.”

He challenged protests regarding greater sage grouse and nesting raptors, saying those birds are adequately protected by the development plan. BLM standards had called for protecting raptor nests even when they are not occupied. Bernhardt’s approval altered that.

Pronghorn antelope gallop across part of the Converse County Oil and Gas Project area. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

“This says that only active nests need to be protected,” McConnaughey said. If a well pad or other construction is taking place near a nest that is not active, and then a bird braves the disturbance to nest, work would stop.

“If one of those nests does become active in the meantime, then activities need to stop,” he said. “And so, it still protects those active nests, even if they were not active at the start of the project.”

Regarding the potential loss of 54 greater sage grouse breeding leks, he said the figure represented a worst-case scenario. Conservationists demand such worst-case accounting, he said, then turn around and use it against approval.

Molvar disagrees.

“Sage grouse populations in northeast Wyoming are already considered to be nearing an extinction vortex, and this massive expansion of wellfields, industrial disturbance and habitat fragmentation could well finish off the sage grouse in the region,” his statement said. That would put the Great Plains population “at serious risk of extinction.”

The government diminished the amount of expected air-pollution in a process strongly criticized by its own Environmental Protection Agency, according to the complainants. EPA officials wrote that the approval analysis for the oilfield employed an inaccurate “alternative approach” to calculating pollution.

The BLM fired an employee whistleblower after his criticism during the approval. Environmental specialist Walter Loewen sought to protect nesting raptors during the writing of the Environmental Impact Statement that was the basis of the approval.

But he was harassed by his bosses and unfairly sacked, according to Public Employees for Environmental Ethics. Loewen appealed his firing but lost his case in front of an administrative judge.

Conservationists continue to scrutinize the leasing of federal lands for energy development, including the recently proposed Wyoming lease sale, that would take place in early 2023. Wyoming Outdoor Council’s Communications Director Alan Rogers said in a statement the Interior Department should update its leasing policies to better manage public land for wildlife, recreation, Indigenous cultural sites and more. Muley Fanatics Foundation President and CEO Josh Coursey called for wildlife protection and taxpayer fairness.

— Dustin Bleizeffer contributed to this report.

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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  1. It appears that many conservationists simply value wildlife more than human life. Overzealous sky-is-falling talk is appreciated when the sky is actually falling. This is not a sky-is-falling moment.

    As for “….the Biden administration’s new proposal to lease another 251,087 acres for oil and gas development in Wyoming,” you won’t hear about it on FOX News. Thank you WyoFile.

    I am all for investments in Wyoming’s “fossil-fuel boondoggle” extractive industry, even coal which is making record profits and – probably – a short-lived recovery. At the moment, the United States (and the world) needs fossil fuels and rare-earth metals more than ever.

    Conservationists are welcome to assist us in doing that in a less-harmful manner but they really need to get a grip on reality and stop trying to kill worthwhile economic development in Wyoming and force $10/gallon gas on the public. Why help Venezuela and Russia and China?

    We have more than enough conservation, and plenty of wild places full of wildlife. Our natural resources are worth protecting to a great degree but our natural resources also have economic value that should be cultivated.
    Does anyone really expect a 5,000-well (5000!!) project to bust loose anytime soon? Unlikely. Our active rig count is at 19 with plenty of unused leases. Just before COVID, the 2019 monthly average rig count was 32.

    Wildlife will survive. Humans may not if conservationists have their way.

    1. Will wildlife survive? The World Wildlife Fund just released their Living Planet Index, which monitors 32,000 separate populations of species around the world, and it documents that, on average, those populations have declined by 69% since 1970.

      We are passing along a lonely world to our children and grandchildren.

      1. Thanks for adding to the conversation Mark.

        Do you really think the sky is falling with our stable (but cyclical) sage grouse numbers in Wyoming?

        The State of Wyoming has the best sage-grouse management of any western state with high-quality habitat.

        We don’t want the bird added to the Endangered Species list as such actions would greatly harm our extractive industry and economic development. The sage grouse is pampered quite well by the State of Wyoming & the Feds.

        I do see efforts to make well-balanced compromises between habitat protection and energy extraction. You lose some, you win some.

        If some people want to live in caves without clothes, electricity, medicines, fertilizers, cars, appliances, etc that the extractive industry makes possible, so be it. I don’t. Conservationists are getting carried away with their agenda and causing great harm to people, especially in poorer nations, or in the middle of Wyoming. They care not.

        It’s time for conservationists to stop stabbing people in the back and start appreciating them as much as the sage grouse.

        1. Typically, conservationists do not value wildlife as much as human lives. But many conservationists value wildlife more than a failing industry, or they understand that Wyoming is one of the very few states that still have some wildlife to speak of.

          I’m curious: do you think we should revive, say, the manufacturing of typewriters and VHS video rental stores? After all, they provided jobs, and thus economic gain.

          It may be true that Wyoming has “the best” sage grouse management plan of any western state. But it’s possible to be the best at something and still be bad. For example, N’Sync was the best boy band.

          And finally, I’m curious what you mean by “plenty of wild places full of wildlife”. You sound like quite an expert–could you please elaborate?

  2. Well now boys and girl critics of policy’s. Are you all aware now Mr. Biden’s admin approved the killing of all birds including raptors and EAGLES by wind power? No more fines nor penalties. Done just last week. All in name of “green power”. So open season now on all raptors by wind power generators. If your going to be critical be critical of all. Dead bird is dead bird

    1. Really?? C’mon Larry! I’ve gotta throw the red flag on this call. Please, show verifiable documentation to back up this absurd “Fox News” type of statement.

  3. Regulating air emissions from oil and gas exploration and production is not an imposition on our Wyoming rights.
    Private land owners who own mineral rights is less common than split estate lands where private lands are on the surface but the mineral rights are federal. The feds then can sell those rights in lease sales to exploration and production companies. But there are laws that govern the process and how the BLM makes decisions, that are decades old. There are environmental laws that originate with the Clean Air Act passed under the Nixon Administration. There are laws to ptotect wildlife habitat and endangered species and more recently the reality of the changing climate and the annual weather impacts. If the feds or any private company or private citizen abuses the system or violates the laws designed to protect us all then there is a right to protest and legally challenge. Do you remember the winter ozone air inversion that shut down schools and Pinedale as a consequence of the gas fields. The air consequences of oil and gas fields is significant especially in WY.
    In 2022 the only good hydrocarbon is one sequestered.

  4. Undo whatever policies Trump oversaw. He is a moron. Any sentient person can understand why these leases, etc. are obsurd. Destruction of our natural environment is not the answer!

  5. It continues to amaze that these groups receive the credibility they are given by the media. Their declarations are printed without question, and given the same, if not higher credibility as agency managers and industry experts. They continuously obstruct agency managers’ ability to actually get good resource-responsible projects on the ground. We have dealt with this for many years with grazing management on BLM. They never come to the table with positive ideas to protect the resource, only obstruct after a decision is made. If they come to a meeting, it is to find ways to sue managers in the future. These projects are possible because citizen legislatures and Congress passed laws allowing development for the good of the People, by the People, through the authority granted by the Constitution. These groups can’t get environmental activist Marxism through legislation, so they look for sympathetic courts to push their agenda.

  6. Here’s EVERYTHING that producers and land owners should be concerned about in this article! This alone will screw everyone!!! It absolutely negates any private property rights!
    “The conservationists asked the court to undo the approval and declare that the government has the authority to regulate wells on private property”

  7. There are always environmental concerns that need addressed , this I agree with.
    However a statement in this article “The conservationists asked the court to undo the approval and declare that the government has the authority to regulate wells on private property, and air-polluting discharges — two elements Bernhardt claimed he couldn’t control. The groups also target recently issued individual well-drilling permits and may ask the court to halt development as the suit is considered.”, leads me to believe this about government control , of our private lands and what we can do with our land.
    Do we really want these people on our private property telling us what we can and cannot do ? An intrusion on our liberty ?
    I think not.
    This issue needs redirection for real concern of the environment and move away from government control of ones private land and liberty.