The Red Desert braces for a gas boom

  • Archaeologists believe these stones were placed during prehistoric times to mark a ceremonial site or a game trail in the area now known as the Jack Morrow Hills in the Red Desert

    MIKE MCCLURE
  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 other utilities.

“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 wells.



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 EIS.



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.



Vermillion 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.



Jack Morrow 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.



The Jack 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 developed.

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.

But 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.’ ”