Another win in the Wyoming Range

 

I’m not usually sold on catchy one-liners, but today, I have a favorite conservation slogan. Care to guess? I bet you won’t get it.

Nope, it’s not “What Would Hayduke Do?” (Though I saw that one in Bluff, Utah, this weekend and had a chuckle.)

And no, it’s not “Go Green: Eat People.” (Though that one does call up the amusingly campy 1973 classic starring Charlton Heston, Soylent Green … er, oops ... that information has nothing to do with the film’s shocking conclusion!)

And, also no, it’s most definitely not “May The Forest Be With You,” (for what I hope are obvious reasons).

In fact, Dick Cheney and Mitt Romney might be proud of me for one fleeting moment here, because, by Jove, the answer is “Drill Baby Drill!”

Now, before you splurt coffee from your nose and start pounding furious messages into the comments section below suggesting that we here at HCN must have ingested too much fracking fluid and made a devil’s bargain with ExxonMobil, perhaps trading our souls for flatbed trucks tricked out with functioning hot tubs (because who wouldn’t want such a thing?!), just bear with me for a moment to savor the irony.

A sign from the campaign to protect the Hoback-Noble basin. Courtesy Emilene Ostlind.

Late last week, the Trust for Public Land announced that it will buy out 58,000 acres of oil and gas leases to prevent energy development from fragmenting valuable wildlife habitat on the Bridger-Teton National Forest in northwestern Wyoming, all of which will be returned to the federal government for permanent retirement. The $8.75 million deal puts an end to a controversial proposal from Houston-based Plains Exploration and Production Co. (PXP) to drill 136 wells for natural gas (serviced by 29 miles of roads and associated infrastructure) on largely untracked and prime hunting grounds along the Hoback River.

Why would PXP go along with such a proposal? Perhaps the company was won over by hunters’ concerns that mule deer numbers in the area could plunge as they have on the nearby Pinedale Anticline gasfield. But, as the Associated Press reports, the extremely low price of natural gas was also a significant factor:

"PXP has repeatedly stated our willingness to consider a buyout of our lease position if a valid offer was tendered," PXP vice president Steve Rusch said in a statement. … Low natural gas prices (also) played a role in the agreement. Rusch said PXP has been shifting away from low-margin natural gas toward higher-priced oil in recent years.

And here we come back to what the heck “Drill Baby Drill” has to do with last week’s considerable conservation triumph. Those natural gas prices dropped precipitously for the simple reason that producers drilled so much – especially in shale gas deposits in the East and South – that they flooded the market and obliterated their profit margins on wells tapping difficult and expensive to reach natural gas deposits.

Oops.

O' course, I don't want to disregard the fact that the deal is also likely due largely to local hunters’ and environmentalists’ spirited fight against the project. For background and some all-around good reading, check out former HCN intern and editorial fellow Emilene Ostlind’s story and subsequent blog posts – here and here – following their efforts, and some impressive past victories. The latest deal was made possible through a provision in the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, which put 1.2 million acres in the mountain range that contains the contested area off limits to oil and gas leasing, and offered a path to buy out those already awarded to companies.

“This agreement shows that we can find common ground between conservationists, hunters, anglers – and even oil and gas developers,” Trust for Public Land's Northern Rockies Director Deb Love said in a statement Oct. 5. Or, at least, it will if the organization can raise $4.25 million before the deal’s Dec. 31 deadline.

Sarah Gilman is High Country News’ Associate Editor