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Know the West

Land board says, 'Look before you lease'

Activists say they have discovered development's Achilles' heel


Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears as a sidebar to another news article, "Energy boom's forward guard stalls out in Utah ... for now."

With drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge off the table for now, all eyes are on Wyoming's Powder River Basin, where the Bureau of Land Management is poised to permit 51,000 coalbed methane wells on public lands (HCN, 11/5/01: Wyoming's powder keg).

But the rush to develop methane on Wyoming's public lands has hit a speed bump of undetermined size. In late April, the Department of Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) agreed with environmental groups that the BLM used inadequate studies when it issued leases for coalbed-methane drilling near Buffalo, Wyo.

The BLM's 1985 review of resources in the Powder River Basin area barely addressed the specific impacts of coalbed-methane development - which involves pumping salty groundwater from coal seams to tap and release the gas.

"Back then, methane was only seen as a hazard to miners," not as a resource to extract, says Dan Heilig, executive director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, which brought the appeal with the Powder River Basin Resource Council.

Since 1985, the agency has leased 98 percent of the public land in Wyoming's Powder River Basin for development, but the board of appeals' conclusion that the BLM put the cart before the horse in approving three leases on 2,500 acres could set a precedent for other coalbed-methane leases in the Powder River Basin, according to environmental groups who filed the appeal.

"We've got millions of acres that this ruling applies to," says Heilig. "The BLM has known for many years that it was violating federal law by issuing leases without disclosing the effects of coalbed methane."

Industry trade groups have dismissed the ruling, noting that the BLM study did cover traditional gas development.

"We disagree with IBLA on this," Dru Bower, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming told the Washington Post. "We believe gas is gas."

Al Pierson, director of BLM's Wyoming office, says the agency is still trying to determine whether the ruling will affect other leases in the Powder River Basin that are based on similar outdated studies. But he notes the agency is working on a basin-wide environmental impact statement (EIS) that addresses the concerns. According to Pierson, the completion of the EIS could make the board of appeals' ruling a moot point.

"The EIS ... looks at the very issues that were raised in the appeal, so if anything the timing is good," he says.

But that document was also dealt a blow, recently, when Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Region 8 office gave it a low rating. The EPA's draft comments said the EIS failed to adequately disclose the full range of impacts to air and water quality, including unregulated discharge of salty groundwater into rivers and streams and the effect of dust and compressor discharges on air quality.

The EPA's evaluation should send the BLM back to the drawing board, but environmentalists fear that Bush administration officials in Washington, D.C., will move to rewrite EPA's comments, or alter the rating. Interior Department spokesman Mark Pfeifle calls the allegation "a bunch of garbage."

"We want to work with EPA to address their questions," said Pfeifle. "We're in consultation with EPA as we speak."

The BLM is looking to finalize the Powder River Basin EIS by September. But the current challenges to it, and prospects for more appeals and lawsuits, may make reaching that goal difficult.

Says Heilig, "All it's going to take is one national environmental group who wants to take this decision and run with it in court."