Reprinted from Land Letter with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC.

By Scott Streater, E&E reporter

A voluntary agreement by a Houston-based energy company to scale back a drilling project in the Bridger-Teton National Forest and win public support for the proposal appears to have galvanized opposition to it.

The U.S. Forest Service has received nearly 40,000 written comments since it released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) in December of Plains Exploration & Production Co.’s (PXP) proposal to drill as many as 136 natural gas wells on 17 well pads across a roughly 20,000-acre section of the southwest Wyoming national forest. The public comment period ended on Friday.

A day after the draft EIS was unveiled, PXP and two advocacy groups — the Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association — announced they had negotiated an agreement in which the company could drill the wells but would not apply for any additional drilling permits, regardless of the volume of natural gas discovered in the region, and pay more than $6 million to protect wildlife habitat and monitor air and water quality in the area.

PXP also agreed to permanently remove from drilling 28,240 acres inside the Bridger-Teton where the company has a valid drilling lease west and north of the Hoback River and to set aside a 4,000-acre corridor for big-game migration and livestock grazing.

PXP hoped the agreement would demonstrate its intent to carry out the drilling project in an environmentally friendly manner that is respectful of the pristine Wyoming Range region; the outdoors groups believed the agreement was the best deal possible, noting that PXP has valid federal leases to drill on the forest and is under no obligation to retire leases or fund wildlife habitat restoration projects.

But the agreement has drawn widespread derision from national and regional environmental groups, some of whom contend the terms of the agreement do not do much to protect the area and do not require the company to make any great sacrifices.

In a Dec. 21, 2010, letter to the Forest Service, a coalition of environmental groups that included Western Resource Advocates and the Wyoming Outdoor Council warned that PXP’s pledge to limit drilling activity in the forest is not enough by itself to safeguard wildlife that are already suffering declines from nearby energy development.

“Most of the mitigation things they agreed to, with the exception of the lease retirement, were restrictions the Forest Service could have imposed without the agreement,” said Dan Smitherman, a spokesman for Citizens for the Wyoming Range, a coalition of residents and business owners opposed to the drilling proposal whose members include Wyoming state Rep. Keith Gingery (R).

‘Some good things in there’

Scott Winters, a PXP spokesman in Houston, said in an e-mailed statement that the company “is sensitive to community concerns,” and that is why it has committed to a suite of initiatives to protect the region.

Gary Amerine, vice president of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association and one of the key negotiators of the agreement, said PXP could easily have moved forward with the project without retiring the leases or agreeing to fund wildlife habitat protection or water quality monitoring to safeguard groundwater and the Hoback River.

“I’ve felt all along that if we could get roughly half the leases they held donated or retired, and perhaps also get some mitigation funds, I’d be happy. And we got those things,” Amerine said. “I think, in my mind, we got the best deal we could possibly hope for.”

The agreement, negotiated over a two-year period with input from the Wyoming governor’s office and state regulators, lays out a number of mitigation measures to protect forest resources, including restricting construction and operation activity in crucial winter range for moose between November and April, and elk calving areas between May and June. But it does not bind the Forest Service to participate or take any particular action.

Still, the Forest Service plans to adopt a number of the terms in the agreement into its final EIS, which is expected to be released this summer, said Bridger-Teton Forest Supervisor Jacque Buchanan.

“There were definitely some good things in there, some things I could not require [PXP] to do,” Buchanan said, referring to the company’s agreement to retire 28,240 acres worth of leases. “What we need to concentrate on, if this thing moves forward, is making it as environmentally friendly as possible. That’s my goal.”

But opponents are not giving up.

The Citizens for the Wyoming Range released a bulletin this week urging opponents to the drilling proposal to submit comments to the Forest Service by the deadline and highlighting the potential environmental impacts if drilling is allowed.

Fear of fracking

One major concern cited by critics is the possibility, discussed in the draft EIS, that the company will use hydraulic fracturing, a long-established industry practice that involves injecting a mixture of water and chemicals to loosen oil and gas deposits trapped inside tight formations. U.S. EPA is currently conducting a two-year study to determine whether the practice, also known as fracking, is a threat to drinking water supplies.

Smitherman, the Citizens for the Wyoming Range spokesman, said members are very concerned about fracking chemicals contaminating the aquifer that supplies drinking water to the region, as well as pollution to the Hoback River, which is part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

He said that if the Forest Service authorizes the PXP drilling project, it should prohibit the company from using hydraulic fracturing until EPA concludes its study.

That is not likely, said Buchanan, who notes that fracking “is an accepted industry tool that’s being used across the country. It’s not illegal.”

Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey said this week after a House hearing on BLM’s 2012 budget request that fracking is not a safety threat to human health or public lands (see related story3).

“We have not seen evidence of any adverse effects as a result of the use of the chemicals that are a part of that fracking technology,” Abbey said.

Winters, the PXP spokesman, said in his e-mail that the company “is committed to utilizing green completion techniques” to ensure hydraulic fracturing is as safe as possible.

“A minimal amount of chemicals will be used as part of the fracturing process,” he wrote, “and constant monitoring will be conducted during the drilling phase to ensure the drilling and completion operations are conducted safely and in accordance with state and federal law.”

Smitherman and others say they hope the sheer volume of comments, many of which opposed the project, will convince the Forest Service to kill it.

“We’d hope the Forest Service will indicate to PXP that it will be difficult to drill in that area,” Smitherman said. “But all we can do is make our comments and hope that the Forest Service will do the right thing.”

READ OR DOWNLOAD March 2011 letter from Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead to the U.S. Forest Service commenting on a proposed oil and natural gas project in the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In a letter to Forest Supervisor Jacqueline Buchanan released Monday, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said the draft EIS does not adequately address water quality monitoring and protection in what is a critical watershed. Mead said that more baseline testing should be performed prior to drilling activity, and that operators must work with state agencies to minimize emissions. Mead noted that even though operators in the neighboring Pinedale Anticline gas field have reduced ozone-causing emissions, that ozone spikes are still occurring.

“While volatile organic compound emissions and nitrogen oxide emissions have declined in the neighboring Pinedale Anticline and Jonah fields because of the measures operators there have implemented, we see occasional, yet very troubling, spikes in ozone,” Mead wrote. “And while these spikes are unique to particular winter conditions, the problem may only get harder to solve with more development in the area. For these reasons I support the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, Air Quality Division’s urging that mitigation be developed to encourage innovation and progress towards new solutions to reduce emissions.”

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