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
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.
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
"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
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."
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
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
"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."
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
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.
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
"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
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
"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."
writes for the Casper Star-Tribune in Rock Springs,