A Heavy Workload for Wyoming

I was visiting with a local geologist in Casper recently who was reminiscing about the heyday of Wyoming’s uranium industry in the 1970s. He was a young guy then, fresh out of college and working on a two-man crew that made the nearly 100-mile drive from Casper to the Gas Hills each summer morning to begin staking claims at sunrise.

Back then, companies rarely asked for permission to hunt for uranium on federal land, he said. A company staked a claim and started drilling. Crews working for competing companies shared the same dirt roads in the Gas Hills and worked like hell to beat each other at staking claims.

The actual process of staking a claim involved two men and a pickup truck. With the wheels pointed straight, the steering wheel was secured with a rope tied under the seat, then the pickup was turned loose to idle in low gear without a single occupant. The men paced off a specified distance from the truck on either side, then walked — or ran — parallel to the idling truck, hammering stakes into the ground.

It wasn’t a perfect system, of course, and one guy had to run back to the truck every so often to make adjustments. The geologist, who shall remain un-named, claims to have witnessed Exxon crews lose two pickup trucks in deep ravines in this manner.

It was wild and fun, he said. But he wouldn’t want to do it again. He’s matured since then, and appreciates a more orderly approach at work. The same could be said of Wyoming and the people who live and play here.

Wyoming’s uranium industry recently woke up from a long slumber to find itself tied to very different regulatory environment. When uranium prices began to climb in 2004, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission scrambled to review its permitting program for an onslaught of proposals to launch new and existing in-situ uranium mines throughout the West — most of them in Wyoming.

After initiating a “generic” Environmental Impact Statement for in-situ uranium mining, the NRC in 2009 decided it would require a supplemental EIS for each individual project rather than a more simplified “environmental assessment.” It meant delays for companies that had already spent millions of dollars and felt bogged down by state and federal regulatory agencies that had lost a lot of institutional knowledge of the industry.

“We have been told various firm dates by the NRC, yet every time we get close to ending the process, something changes,” Donna Wichers of Uranium One told the Star-Tribune in 2009.

Permitting at the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality was slow and arduous, too. After some six years of working through federal and state permitting, the industry was fed up. In 2010, the industry drafted a bill that would force DEQ to hire a contractor to work through its backlog of permits.

Although the draft bill was dumped, it was an ugly episode that gave the industry the appearance that it was unaware of the energy boom and the impacts Wyoming had taken on during uranium’s slumber.

Wyoming’s coal industry cranked up production 38 percent from 2003 to 2008. By 2008, the Powder River Basin was perforated with 30,000 coal-bed methane gas wells, and the Bureau of Land Management’s Buffalo field office had been under orders to crank out a minimum 3,000 permits per year.

Thousands of natural gas wells were being drilled throughout Wyoming and the region — a surge that doubled the Rockies’ daily natural gas export from 2000 to 2010.

“There has been a tremendous surge in energy development and all the attendant things that go with it,” Wyoming DEQ administrator John Corra told WyoFile recently.

There’s a lot of activity in Wyoming, and regulators have attempted to respond. Corra noted that each new permit issued in the state adds to the volume of regulated activities that require continual monitoring and enforcement. Wyoming has its hands full, yet is eager to continue to take on more energy development.

The natural gas industry has proposed some 21,000 new wells throughout Wyoming, including 3,500 in the Green River Basin where the state still struggles to resolve spiking ozone concentrations.

Gone are the Wild West days of uninhibited development. Wyoming’s uranium industry didn’t expect a free pass when it launched a comeback. But it did find itself at the end of a slow-moving line at the permitting office. There are mumblings of incompetence and anti-development attitudes. But it’s worth noting the cumulative amount of energy Wyoming is contributing to the nation and the world.

– Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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