Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Where the Antelope (and the Oil Companies) Play."
One of the reasons the demand for natural gas is outsprinting the supply is that it takes too long to navigate the federal environmental rules. At least, that’s the story according to the industry and its friends in Washington.
From the time a sizable gas drilling project is proposed, it typically takes several years for the Bureau of Land Management to conduct studies and approve or deny it, and after that, another several months for the agency to issue a permit to drill wells. Despite calls for the BLM to speed it up, in the last five years, the average wait for a well permit in Wyoming has ballooned from 77 days to 175 days, says Andrew Bremner, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, headquartered in Denver.
“It’s a long time, and it’s difficult to plan a business with so much unpredictability,” Bremner says. In contrast, where the Wyoming state government runs the mineral rights, he says, it takes only 15 to 30 days to issue gas well permits.
And once the BLM issues a permit, the agency typically imposes “wildlife stipulations” on the drilling, which cause even more difficulty, Bremner says. Companies can even be asked to bring in specially trained hunting dogs, to spot nests of sensitive species, such as sage grouse.
According to a graph circulated by Bremner’s association, the wildlife stipulations in southwest Wyoming include: no drilling in crucial winter range for antelope and deer from Nov. 15 to March 15; no drilling close to any sage grouse lek from March 1 to May 15; no drilling close to any grouse nest from May 15 to July 15; no drilling near any mountain plover nest from June 1 to Aug. 15; no drilling near any raptor nest from April 1 to June 15; and so on.
Bremner and others in the industry often say that all the restrictions squeeze the window for drilling down to just 60 days in the fall, when no stipulations are in effect. But that’s an exaggeration. The only way that drilling a well would be limited to those 60 days is if that well were planned right on top of a grouse lek, and on top of a grouse nest, a plover nest, a raptor nest, a burrowing owl nest, in a prairie dog colony, in crucial winter range, and so on — only if all the stipulations applied to that exact site. Moreover, the BLM often grants companies exemptions to the protections for grouse, antelope and the other wildlife — especially the winter range closures. Last winter, the BLM office in Pinedale, Wyo., granted one company an exemption to drill for the entire winter.
Once the disturbance of drilling is over, a producing well is quieter, but the impacts still extend year-round, says Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Laramie. Access roads invite coyotes and other predators, which look for roadkill and then fan out, preying on sage grouse and other sensitive wildlife.
Molvar says many of the BLM’s stipulations are “absolutely the most minimal.” The buffers for grouse, he says, are less than what studies show are necessary to protect the birds. While the industry says wells are temporary, and that it cleans up the land when it’s done, Molvar says many impacts last for decades, or can be effectively permanent. Therefore, careful evaluation of drilling proposals up front makes sense — even if it doesn’t jive with the Bush administration’s push to speed things up for industry.
“You can’t just push it,” agrees one BLM wildlife biologist in Wyoming. “And that’s where we disagree with Washington. It’s like any bureaucracy. The higher up you go, the less you know what’s going on in the field.” But on Aug. 7, BLM headquarters issued 17 pages of new orders for field offices in the Rockies to re-evaluate all protections for wildlife.
Effective immediately, wildlife protections should be “the least restrictive necessary,” state the orders. There will be more emphasis on waivers, exemptions and possibly eliminating some protections, with the goal of “reducing or eliminating impediments to oil and gas leasing.” And checking for impacts on wildlife can now be done by oil and gas companies, with the BLM merely retaining “oversight.”