« Return to this article

Know the West

Energy companies rush the West

Wyoming applies the brakes, but the leasing spree continues


With high natural gas prices and an administration that has prioritized oil and gas development on public lands, energy companies are staking out more and more of the West.

One of those places is western Wyoming, where the flanks of the Wyoming Range slope down to the edge of the Upper Green River Basin, an oil and gas hotspot (HCN, 8/18/03: Where the Antelope (and the Oil Companies) Play). This April, the U.S. Forest Service approved a plan to lease 157,000 acres of the Bridger-Teton National Forest — including 92,000 acres of roadless land — for oil and gas drilling. The plan was charged with controversy from the start. The Forest Service approved the sale, scheduled to take place in three installments starting Oct. 5, without any public comment, relying on an environmental analysis and a forest plan that were both more than a decade out of date.

Tom Darin, with the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, says, "We basically said, ‘Hey, a lot has changed since then,’ " including the development of a significant local recreation economy, and the endangered species listing of the Canada lynx, which has habitat in the area proposed for lease. "(We thought) they should do an updated round of public participation."

In early September, in response to a wave of public comment organized by environmental groups, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, D, and Sen. Craig Thomas, R, asked the Forest Service to hold off on leasing. Just days later, on Sept. 14, regional forester Jack Troyer withdrew the Bridger-Teton lands from a Bureau of Land Management auction "until further notice," citing Freudenthal’s concern that " ‘maybe it’s time to apply the carpenter’s rule … measure twice and cut once.’ "

It was the second time this year that Freudenthal has intervened to ask the federal government to slow down its leasing program. In June, he asked the BLM to hold off on leasing additional acreage in its Pinedale Resource Area until a 16-year-old resource management plan, which serves as a blueprint for oil and gas development in the area, is updated in November. The area — which includes the Upper Green River Basin and the Jonah Field, regarded as the richest onshore natural gas field in the country — is already 75 percent leased.

Freudenthal cited an Associated Press analysis which found that 77 percent of leased federal land in Wyoming is not currently producing oil and gas. "Look, we have an immense amount of resource under lease that needs to be looked at before we add to it," he says.

Freudenthal is careful to say that his office isn’t questioning all leasing. "We approach each of these (lease sales) in context and one at a time," he says. But oil and gas development is reaching unprecedented levels in the Rockies. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that it will issue 6,000 drilling permits by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 — 58 percent more than last year, and an all-time record. This June, the BLM offered 281,000 acres of land for lease in Utah, a record for the state; in September, BLM broke that record when it offered another 362,665 acres for lease there. Nationwide, the agency has leased 2,484,522 acres so far this fiscal year, 20 percent more than the total for 2003.

More is coming: In 2001, the BLM began a nationwide process to update its resource management plans, and about 80 of the agency’s 162 plans are currently being revised. But while the BLM hopes to update all of them within the next decade, 10 plans at the top of the list have been prioritized because they are related to energy development.

"We have an energy crisis on our hands," says Patricia Morrison, the deputy assistant secretary of the Interior for lands and minerals management. "I think it’s our obligation from the federal lands perspective to provide as much energy access as we possibly can."

The Wilderness Society analyzed four recently released plans: for Price, Utah, which includes the oil- and gas-rich Book Cliffs; Otero Mesa in New Mexico; the Jack Morrow Hills in Wyoming’s Red Desert; and the Dillon Resource Area in southwest Montana. The analysis found that 84 percent of the 6.4 million acres covered by the plans will be available for oil and gas leasing — including about 90 percent of the Dillon Resource Area, which is currently off-limits to leasing.

"They’re setting the plate for the next 20 years," says Wilderness Society economist Pete Morton.

The author is HCN associate editor.

For more information about the BLM’s resource management plan revision process, visit The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center, www.blmactioncenter.org, 303-650-5818, ext. 115.