Plans for extracting natural gas are piling up in southwest Wyoming. In addition to the drilling in the Upper Green River Basin, industry is targeting fully one-fourth of the federal land in the region that environmentalists call the Greater Red Desert.
The plans include two big coalbed
methane plays near Rawlins, and opening the gates to drilling on up
to 75 percent of the Jack Morrow Hills. More than 5,000 proposed
wells would come with a vast infrastructure of gas and water
pipelines, compressor stations, holding ponds, access roads and
“We’ve got some huge projects
coming down in the Greater Red Desert,” says Jeff Kessler,
conservation director of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in
Laramie. “And we’ve got a number of imperiled species
in the same areas.”
The Red Desert and its fringes
— more than 4 million acres of arid, sparsely populated
terrain — range from badlands to sand dunes, sagebrush, woody
draws, a few big creeks and seasonal streams. The land provides
important habitat for a desert elk herd, pronghorn, ferruginous
hawks, white-tailed prairie dogs, sage grouse, pygmy rabbits,
mountain plover, and other wildlife.
The region already
has an extensive gas field, around the town of Wamsutter, where
about 1,300 wells are being added to the approximately 1,300
already in place. The new projects, described in BLM environmental
impact statements (EISes), include:
Atlantic Rim: up to 3,880 coalbed methane wells
proposed on 250,000 acres, stretching from just south of Rawlins
nearly to the Colorado border. The BLM is working on a draft EIS,
and meanwhile, industry has drilled several dozen exploratory
Seminoe Road: 1,240
coalbed methane wells proposed over 30-40 years on 137,000 acres
northeast of Rawlins; the BLM is working on a draft
Desolation Flats: 385 gas
wells proposed on 232,000 acres about 20 miles south of Wamsutter;
the BLM is evaluating public comment on a draft EIS that was
published in April.
Basin: up to 56 gas wells on 85,550 acres southwest of
Bitter Creek. After several years of wrangling with Kessler’s
group, the BLM adjusted its environmental assessment last summer,
and drilling is proceeding.
Hills: The BLM published a supplemental draft EIS in
February, calling for 434,000 acres to be open for development and
protecting 142,000 acres. The hills have about 150 wells already,
and the EIS allows 205 new gas wells and 50 exploratory coalbed
methane wells over the next 20 years.
Morrow Hills proposal is the best-known and most controversial. The
BLM’s original draft EIS, which came out in 2000, allowed up
to 125 new wells, but when public comments went against it,
then-Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt ordered the BLM to do the
supplemental EIS, and to have the preferred alternative emphasize
conservation. With the Bush administration in charge now, the
preferred alternative is not noticeably conservation-oriented. The
BLM rejected protecting more than 100,000 additional acres that
environmentalists have identified as wilderness. Now the agency is
evaluating more than 60,000 comments on the new EIS, most of which
likely oppose development.
Gov. Dave Freudenthal, who
toured the Jack Morrow Hills in June, told the BLM that
“cumulative effects on the elk and deer that could arise from
(development) could prove to be disastrous for these two
species.” The governor wants more emphasis on protecting
wildlife, including pronghorn, as well as buyouts or exchanges of
mineral rights to keep some sensitive areas from being
The proposals covered by the current EIS
processes are a year or more from hitting the ground, says Clare
Miller, assistant field manager for minerals and lands in the
BLM’s Rawlins office. “We’re going cautiously.
We’re not allowing a lot to happen on the public land until
we’ve fully studied the impacts,” he says.
the environmental groups involved — including the Wyoming
Outdoor Council, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Natural Resources
Defense Council, and Wilderness Support Center — say there is
ample reason to be worried.
“We can estimate the
impacts,” says Kessler, “but what is not quantifiable
in any way is that this landscape is going to be industrialized.
How do you measure that? We’re changing the character of
these places forever. That’s what the BLM is not admitting.
The folks who live in Wyoming because of what Wyoming is —
open spaces, wildlife — may wake up one day and realize,
‘Damn, it’s gone.’ ”