A BP America supervisor visits with reporters during a 2008 tour of the company’s Wamsutter natural gas production facilities in south-central Wyoming. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)
A BP America supervisor visits with reporters during a 2008 tour of the company’s Wamsutter natural gas production facilities in south-central Wyoming. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Bruce Babbitt: Wyoming BLM should end era of non-regulation

Guest Column by Bruce Babbitt
— November 26, 2013
Bruce Babbitt

For years the Wyoming state office of the Bureau of Land Management has had a national reputation as a captive of the oil and gas industry. The BLM has left the industry free to build roads and locate wells, destroying and disrupting wildlife habitat as it pleases, in the process creating landscapes known as “sacrifice zones.” The Jonah Field in the Green River Basin is an emblem of this “hands off” regulatory style.

This tradition of non-regulation may be about to change as the BLM finally awakens to environmental concerns, including sage grouse conservation. A proposal by BP America to drill an additional 8,950 wells in the area between Rock Springs and Rawlins could be the turning point. The pending decision document for the project includes two proposals that could, if implemented, put the BLM on a course to meaningful industry regulation.

The first is a proposal to reduce impacts by mandating use of directional drilling of multiple wells from each well pad. Technical advances within the industry allow multiple wells reaching outward for as much as two miles from each well site.  A modest requirement of four wells per pad could reduce the number of wells from 8,950 to less than 2,500, greatly reducing destruction of wildlife habitat essential for mule deer, pronghorn and sage grouse.

The Environmental Impact Statement for the project also proposes other measures to avoid disturbing sage grouse habitat. However, the BLM seems unwilling to implement Governor Matt Mead’s Wyoming habitat plan for managing oil and gas activity to protect core sagebrush areas. Why the BLM hesitates to forthrightly adopt the Wyoming state standard is a puzzle, all the more so in light of the recent speech by Interior Secretary Jewell. In her remarks, the Secretary said, “President Obama believes that we have a moral obligation to the next generation to leave our land, water and wildlife better than we found it.” And she specifically noted that Interior agencies, including the BLM, “must ensure that projects minimize impacts. …”

The BLM decision on the BP America proposal is due in early 2014. We will then learn whether BLM is still captive to the past or ready to begin listening to Secretary Jewell.

Bruce Babbitt served as U.S. Secretary of the Interior in the President Bill Clinton administration, and is former governor of Arizona. He is president of Raintree Ventures.

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7 Comments

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  1. In response to Jim Brown… I would guess that you have been hired by developers as a consultant? I have also worked for developers/operators as a consultant to navigate the BLM permitting process. I will admit that it is a long and complicated process, but for the few years that I could tolerate doing this work it was my observation that in the end, the BLM made the most compromises by far. Although I was hired by the developers, I love Wyoming, its land and wildlife, and it was very disappointing to me how many times BLM would cave to energy ‘producers’. It was so disheartening to me that I left the business altogether.
    Politically, I prefer State governments having more power over the lands within their borders than the Feds. Unfortunately, Wyoming government has been letting energy developers rape our lands for decades and without the BLM or USFS attempting to reign some of that in, I can’t imagine how much worse it would be.

  2. Secretary Babbitt has a few things wrong about the BLM and greater sage-grouse (GSG). The BLM is not attempting to block the Wyoming Governor’s GSG Core Area strategy; it is mandating it in ever RMP revision that has been published to day. The reason they are doing so is that the Core Area strategy does not protect even Core Area (which the BLM inaccurately portrays as being the same as “priority habitat”). Areas outside of Core Area are treated as sacrifice areas; the Executive Order establishing the Core Area explicitly states that losses outside of Core will lose birds. Outside of Core, the 1/4 mile buffer around leks is known to be contributing to population declines.
    The 5% cap on surface disturbance is not based on any science. Moreover, in most parts (if not all) of Wyoming, it does not limit drilling because the 5% calculation considers a huge area, defined by the project proponent. If the proponent defines the project sufficiently large, any amount of surface disturbance can come in under the cap.
    The strategy doesn’t limit mining activity such as uranium mining; see the Lost Creek case decided in the Rawlins field office.
    The seasonal timing restrictions apply only to drilling operations. Once a well is in place, there are no timing limitations. Noise and physical presence can occur without limit including “well completion” activities that can be as noisy and disruptive as drilling.
    The absurd part of the BLM’s activities regarding oil and gas development in Wyoming is that it delays the approval of a well or a project so that the company (and consumers) pay more. No net benefit to wildlife results since the action is inevitably approved but it all takes a long time.
    I don’t doubt that industry left to its own devices would continue the type of destructive development that can be seen in older fields but the BLM is not doing any where near what needs to be done for wildlife protections and the frightening decline in GSG and mule deer populations (see the Wyoming Game and Fish web page) is proof of it.

  3. Although Bruce Babbit may take justifiable pride in restoring and conserving natural habit as Secretary of the Interior in the Clinton administration, his remarks about BLM’s supposed “non regulation” of oil and gas activities betray astonishing ignorance of the BLM permitting process in Wyoming. I can assure him that any oil and gas operator having navigated the lengthy well permitting process on federal lands (average 307 days nationally in 2011), having tried to schedule drilling within time windows mandated by wild life stipulations, and wrestled with finding a drill location in compliance with sage grouse core area setback requirements, not to mention dealing with “view sheds” and emissions standards, would find Babbit’s comments laughable. As for multi-well drilling pads, not all oil and gas reservoirs can be economically produced using this technique, a fact that would likely escape someone not having to deal with profit/loss statements. As a product of what Babbitt would refer to as federal “non regulation,” US oil and gas production on federal lands fell more than 23% and 33% respectively from fiscal year 2010 to 2012 (Congressional Research Service), while operators working under state regulations increased oil production in 2012 at the fastest rate in the history of the oil and gas industry. God forbid what would happen under Babbit’s vision of “regulation.”

    James A. Brown
    Wyoming Professional Geologist 2815

  4. The BLM’s internal interdisciplinary team plans to meet in December and January to develop the agency’s preferred alternative for the Continental Divide – Creston Natural Gas Project draft Environmental Impact Statement. That decision will first be shared with cooperating agencies, then it will be made public in the final EIS in late summer or early fall of 2014. For more information about this NEPA process, visit the Wyoming BLM Rawlins Field Office’s website for the project, http://www.blm.gov/wy/st/en/info/NEPA/documents/rfo/cd_creston.html
    — Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile editor-in-chief

  5. It would be fine with me if the BLM did what they want to, as long as it is acknowledged and recognized that it constitutes a fascist action of a communo-fascist federal government.

  6. I couldn’t agree more with Secretary Babbitt. I have maintained for years that the BLM was a ready hand-maiden for the livestock industry and the oil and gas industry. Let’s see if Secretary Jewell is ready to make good on her words. Babbitt lost his seat because of the power of those industries.