Compromise in the Wyoming Range

 

Three days after my recent story about a proposed energy development in the Wyoming Range's Noble Basin rolled off the presses, the Forest Service released their much-anticipated draft environmental impact statement for the project. The Forest Service's "preferred alternative" would let Plains Exploration and Production (or PXP) develop the necessary roads and infrastructure to drill all of the wells the company proposed -- 136 of them from 17 well pads -- with only a few restrictions, such as no drilling during the winter, no development within 500 feet of streams, and extra emissions controls to protect air quality.

Even Governor Dave Freudenthal, D-Wyo., has called for a "very high bar" to protect habitat and environmental resources in the Noble Basin. But critics of the project say the Forest Service's draft EIS set the bar disappointingly low. "No drilling should happen here no matter what," says Heather Mathews, who owns a piece of property in the Hoback Ranches, a few miles away from the proposed drilling site.  "This area needs to be protected forever." Dan Smitherman, spokesman for Citizens for the Wyoming Range, a group that wants to keep energy development out of the Noble Basin, says the agency's preferred alternative "didn't offer anything to wildlife. It's essentially what PXP wants. It's the project with a few tweaks."

But then, the day after the Forest Service released the document, a new piece of information landed in the mix.  Two Wyoming organizations -- Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association -- announced that they had signed an agreement with PXP. The agreement places much stricter restrictions on the development than the Forest Service proposed, including moving two wells away from the Hoback River. It also includes a promise from PXP to retire more than 28,000 acres of leases deep inside the Wyoming Range without monetary compensation. And under the agreement, PXP would contribute $4 million to mitigate impacts to wildlife from the development, plus an additional $2 million to pay for air and water quality monitoring, a moose study, and projects to benefit nearby communities. In return, the sportsmen's groups promised to support development of the 136 wells in the public review process and during any potential litigation.

An editorial in the Casper Star Tribune hailed the deal as a "landmark agreement" that will "significantly" contain drilling in the Wyoming Range.

Gary Amerine is vice president of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association. He's been working to protect the Wyoming Range since the late Senator Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., began drafting the Wyoming Range Legacy Act about five years ago. Amerine acknowledges that some people who use these mountains for hunting and recreation will be impacted by the development, but adds, "Thank goodness I sat down with (PXP). If we hadn't been involved, (they) would still hold the 28,000 acres, there would be no mitigation fund, and no restrictions that the agreement has on it. It could be a lot worse." Governor Freudenthal issued a statement saying he is "pleased" with the way the agreement addressed his concerns with the development. 

But Heather Mathews was shocked to learn about the plan. "As much as I appreciate them giving money, it's still roads, it's still drilling, it's still the impact," she says. "It's still going to threaten the wildlife. It's still going to threaten the air and water quality." And the proposed compromise still lets PXP build a road right through the bear hole, a tree-covered slope prized by local hunters.

Both Mathews and Smitherman point to mitigation funds that have failed to protect wildlife from energy development elsewhere in Sublette County, Wyo. "We have a track record with wildlife mitigation funds," Smitherman says. "The Pinedale Anticline wildlife fund was $22 million and the mule deer still went down 60 percent."

He also questions the implication that the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association, of which he is a member, endorses the compromise, saying it was "negotiated in a back room. There was no public input."

"Both the DEIS and the agreement end with same results," he says. "They end with turning this area into an industrial wasteland."

For the agreement between the sportsmen's groups and PXP to become official, it must go through the Forest Service's environmental review, which includes analyzing the impacts of the plan, inviting public input and publishing a formal record of decision that authorizes how the development can proceed. Public comments on the natural gas development can be submitted in writing to:

Bridger-Teton National Forest

Jacqueline A. Buchanan

P.O. Box 1888

Jackson, WY 83001

Comments may also be submitted by email with the subject line “Eagle Prospect and Noble Basin MDP DEIS.” Comments can be included either in the body of the message or attached as plain text (.txt), rich text (.rtf), or Word (.doc) and sent to:

comments-intermtn-bridger-teton-big-piney@fs.fed.us

Comments may be submitted through March 10, 2011.

Photo: The Hoback River flows through the Wyoming Range, by the author.

Emilene Ostlind is a High Country News editorial intern.