ROCK SPRINGS , Wyo. - A boom in natural gas drilling in southwestern Wyoming is happening so fast that government scientists don't have enough time to study, let alone mitigate, impacts to wildlife, say state wildlife officials, sportsmen and environmentalists.


More than 3,000 gas wells are currently operating in the five counties of southwestern Wyoming, almost all on Bureau of Land Management lands. And the new well fields are expanding rapidly.


"It took 175 million years to get the oil and gas in," says Norm Gillespie, a Rock Springs sportsman who has led a crusade to rebuild deer herds in the area. "What's the hurry to get it out? ... They're going too fast with this exploration, and they're going to damage all our game herds."


Environmental and sportsmen groups have long claimed that BLM is permitting new wells without meaningful analysis. This time the state is joining the chorus, with the Game and Fish Department particularly critical of the Moxa Arch gas project southwest of Pinedale.


In the late 1980s, a half-dozen oil companies began to drill exploratory wells in the now-massive field. The BLM did an environmental assessment in 1991, followed by a supplemental EA in 1992, when full field development was already under way. The second assessment provided for a maximum of 553 wells in a three- to five-year period.


"But now, to our knowledge, there are over 700 wells producing in the area," says Bill Rudd, wildlife coordinator in Green River. "That means that 150 wells were approved outside the scope of any existing environmental analysis."


An environmental impact statement is under way to assess the effect of an additional 300 wells, prompting state game officials to call for a halt to further development until the EIS is completed and a mitigation plan is developed.


The Moxa Arch field is located in the heart of critical winter range for several of southwestern Wyoming's largest antelope herds. The "cumulative loss of crucial winter forage" in the area could be serious for the popular game species, earlier environmental documents say.


Rudd says that if other gas development projects begin to grow with the speed and to the same extent as Moxa Arch, the result could be a "contiguous block of gas development" across all of southwestern Wyoming - and that cumulative assessment of such development is lacking.


Bill McMahan, BLM environmental specialist in the Rock Springs District office, says the EAs "did an adequate job" on the earlier level of development at Moxa, and that the current EIS will "assess the cumulative effects of the expanded development."


McMahan also says mitigation measures such as seasonal drilling restrictions, reduction of disturbances in crucial wildlife habitat, erosion control standards for roads, and immediate reclamation of areas no longer needed, effectively control adverse development impacts.


Industry officials say the environmental oversight of gas development is more than adequate.


"If they've had two EAs and a full-blown EIS, it sounds to me like a lot of opportunity to participate," says Jeff Cooper, executive vice president of the Rocky Mountain Oil and Gas Association in Denver.


Jim Barlow, Casper oil and gas industry consultant, says "emotional" pronouncements by environmentalists and the state wildlife officials could ultimately destroy a significant benefit to the state of Wyoming.


"A gas well occupies two or three acres, and the road another acre or two," Barlow says. "That's five acres out of 640. Environmentalists are very quick to look at that as an impact on the 640 acres rather than the five."


Such a well might produce 8 billion cubic feet of gas, worth $12 million if priced at $1.50 per thousand cubic feet, Barlow calculates. "And the state's revenue is 15 or 16 percent of that," he says. "What are the trade-offs if you can produce that amount of gas and not drive the elk away? ... Look at the benefit to Wyoming, to the education system. These are the issues that need to be discussed."


The battle over the Moxa Arch gas field may be only the beginning. Natural gas production in the southwestern part of Wyoming reached record levels last year and is expected to increase steadily through the end of the century, industry experts predict. Once burned as a waste byproduct of oil, natural gas increasingly is the fuel of choice in a growing and diversifying range of usages.


The opening of the Kern River pipeline early in 1992 spurred increased production and processing of natural gas in Wyoming. The availability of 750 million cubic feet per day in pipeline capacity direct from Opal, Wyo., to California means Wyoming producers could supply the growing demand in the nation's most populous state.


Though combined oil and gas severance tax revenues in Wyoming - $136 million in fiscal year 1993 - still fall far short of their 1985 peak of $270.2 million, increasing gas revenues in the next five years are projected to more than make up for diminishing oil severance taxes, according to state financial figures.


Total Wyoming gas production value has climbed an average 11.8 percent annually for the past five years, while oil production value has declined an average 5.5 percent yearly, according to figures supplied by Rick Robitaille, executive director of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.


Jeff Cooper says the gas industry has been boosted by Clinton administration policies that favor natural gas development, and hampered by the administration's land-use policies.


"We've had real difficulties getting access to federal lands, because of delays in applications for permits to drill, environmental analysis, and BLM reorganization," Cooper says. "All that is putting the industry on hold."


For Wyoming Outdoor Council spokesman Dan Heilig, the process is moving way too fast. He says BLM scientists have "no clear picture of impacts' at the leasing stage, and base their lease decisions on limited information.


"The detailed analysis occurs at a later stage, when the company proposes to develop the lease," Heilig says. "Then it's too late to stop or severely restrict the gas development. You can't constrain the company beyond the terms included in the lease ... The company has a contract right with the U.S. government. What we have is de facto industrialization of multiple use lands."


- Katharine Collins





Katharine Collins writes for the Casper Star-Tribune in Rock Springs, Wyo.