The future of gas leasing in the Wyoming Range is being batted around like a tetherball on a playground as energy companies and conservation groups each take swings. If conservationists win, the gas leases will be scaled back or retired and the mountains protected from development under the 2009 Wyoming Range Legacy Act. If energy companies win, they'll go forward with plans to develop leases grandfathered in to the protected area. The Forest Service, acting as a sort of referee, has been making calls on behalf of one side and then the other.
On Tuesday, conservationists got in a hit when American River's announced the range's Hoback River made the number 7 spot on its list of ten most endangered rivers in the U.S. "In addition to significant sedimentation risk from well construction and other development, the river’s clean water is threatened by industrial chemicals and toxic wastewater from the hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking,' process," American Rivers posted in its announcement. Furthermore, roads, traffic and activity from natural gas development would push out species like the threatened Canada lynx and grizzlies plus mule deer, moose, elk and antelope already facing natural gas development in other parts of their ranges. As I reported for HCN last winter, a Houston-based company called Plains Exploration and Production, or PXP, is hoping to develop 136 wells from 17 well pads along the upper reaches of the Hoback River.
The most-endangered-river designation is the latest in a flurry of smacks spinning the ball in conservationists' favor since energy companies got in their last hit when the Forest Service approved the PXP development with few restrictions back in December. Soon thereafter, two sportsmen groups announced they wouldn't sue over the development as long as PXP agreed to a whole set of stipulations such as retiring other leases deeper in the mountains and contributing $6 million to a fund for wildlife monitoring and mitigation. Then, over the following months, nearly 40,000 comments flowed into the Forest Service office, mostly protesting how the development would hurt wildlife and air quality already suffering from nearby gas developments in the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah fields. The agency's response to these comments is pending.
Meanwhile, PXP, who's also been found guilty of spilling crude oil and brine water into a river in California, made a feeble defensive attempt to counter the endangered river claim.
“The American Rivers organization has consistently opposed all forms of oil and gas development in the region,” Scott Winters, vice president of corporate planning and communications for PXP told the Jackson Hole News & Guide in an email. “PXP is sensitive to community concerns about protection of ground and surface water quality in the area surrounding the project.”
Just to the south the Forest Service is deciding the fate of another 70-square-mile set of leases. First the agency approved the leases based on an outdated and insufficient environmental review. Then it redid the environmental review and changed direction, deciding to cancel the leases. Energy companies appealed and swung things around in early May when the Forest Service agreed to withdraw its cancellation decision and redo its environmental review yet again. Conservationists hope the revised review will offer even more evidence in support of canceling the leases to help them wind up the ball in their favor and win the match.
Image of Hoback River by Scott Bosse from American Rivers.
Emilene Ostlind is HCN's editorial fellow.