Wyoming's Red Desert: 15 million acres of contention

  • Electrical transmission lines, sheep and scenery north of Rock Springs

    Mike McClure
  • Conservationists fear Red Desert will get crowded with oil wells

    Mike McClure

ROCK SPRINGS, Wyo. - It was the Friday night before the big event, and the first of 300 conservationists bound for this oil and gas boomtown in southwestern Wyoming had started trickling in. They gathered in a local art gallery, where they snacked on hors d'oeuvres and viewed artwork of the state's vast Red Desert, a chunk of buttes, sagebrush and grasslands nearly the size of West Virginia. And they chatted about what had brought them here for a two-day conference: a pending oil and gas boom that could turn the Red Desert into one of the biggest oil and gas fields in the country.

Their concerns were not unfounded. The Bureau of Land Management had recently announced that it would oversee the development of 6,000 to 11,000 new gas wells on public land in the Green River basin by the year 2015. Five thousand of those wells were already under consideration. That compares with a total of about 13,000 wells drilled in the area in the past 100 years. Along with the wells would come thousands of miles of new roads and pipelines, gas processors and other facilities - all smack-dab in the middle of prime wildlife habitat for elk, deer, moose, antelope, eagles and a host of other species.

But while the participants of the biennial Conservation Congress, aptly called, "Red Desert Blues: the Industrialization of Southwestern Wyoming," talked strategies to slow oil and gas development, a group with a different perspective was meeting across town.

At the local high school, State Rep. Gordon Park, R-Evanston, praised the 175 oil and gas workers seated in the cafeteria as the "true activists' and characterized the environmentalists as Washington Beltway people and "high-paid lawyers from other states here to mess up our lives." The speakers at the meeting sponsored by the Southwest Wyoming Mineral Association didn't sound confident that happy days had returned to the oil and gas fields. They talked of dismally low natural gas prices and costly administrative delays caused by environmentalists.

The line between boom and bust in southwestern Wyoming's oil and gas fields has always been thin. The area went through a spasm of drilling in the late "70s and early "80s, before sinking once again into a deep slump. But most experts agree that, as the fuel of the future, a gas revival is inevitable and the vast reserves beneath the Red Desert - an estimated 150 trillion cubic-feet - will be tapped. How that development occurs, however, is the million-dollar question.

The worried get together

Conservationists have placed their hopes in a 17-member federal advisory committee convened earlier this year by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. The Green River Basin Advisory Committee includes oil industry representatives, environmental advocates and local elected officials. It is an attempt to reach consensus on the issues surrounding oil and gas drilling before things get out of hand.

The committee generated its own controversy even before its work began. Wyoming's entire congressional delegation, the oil and gas industry and Republican Gov. Jim Geringer all criticized the idea from the day Interior officials first proposed it last fall. Geringer, who was invited to name to the panel a state Game and Fish Department representative and a representative from his office, at first refused. But he eventually relented, after Interior officials agreed to include more Wyoming representatives on the committee.

"You've got a bunch of environmentalists that really want to understand what the oil companies want to do, and you've got a bunch of oil companies that want to tell them," Assistant Interior Secretary Robert Armstrong said a few days prior to the committee's first meeting in March. "Now everybody can get their teeth into this, stop some of the lawsuits and get on with the development of oil and gas in an orderly and proper way."

The committee's first hearings were flooded by a group of frustrated oilfield workers. They told stories of lost business, layoffs, and uncertainty caused by environmental appeals. They criticized the advisory committee as another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy that would inhibit natural gas development.

The advisory committee has kept plugging along. Over the last three months, its members have called on BLM staff to assemble mountains of data in an attempt to develop an accurate picture of the pace of drilling, the time required for approvals, and the numbers of wells that could be drilled immediately if companies want to move ahead.

Those figures were prominently aired at the Conservation Congress. Tom Throop, executive director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, said currently there are 195 fully approved wells in southwest Wyoming, and another 157 in final approval stages. Some 701 have preliminary approval but industry has not applied for a permit to drill them.

While the market falls apart

Prices, meanwhile, are very low - as little as $1 per thousand cubic-feet at the Opal, Wyo., gas hub compared to $2.50 per thousand cubic-feet in Louisiana.

"The markets are flooded with natural gas, the pipelines are at capacity and the ... price is at the lowest level in years," said Throop. Those factors - not environmental regulations - are causing the slump, he says.

Oil and gas industry officials maintain there are additional reasons for the current drilling slowdown. Insufficient pipeline capacity to the East, a glut of Canadian gas competing with Wyoming gas in California, and improvements in drilling technology that have reduced drilling time are all part of the mix, they say.

"Of course, price drives decisions," says Alex Woodruff, a spokesman for Colorado Interstate Gas, a transporter and processor of natural gas. "But when you couple that with permitting problems and appeals, companies look at their overall investment strategy and they need to be very cautious. They ask themselves, "Do I drill for gas at $1.25 per thousand cubic-feet, knowing I have to go through the NEPA process and then risk getting the project appealed?" That can scare folks off."

Staying out of court

Finding common ground will be a difficult task for the advisory committee. It held its third two-day meeting in Craig, Colo., May 22 and 23, where it heard from three "work groups." One group is focusing on achieving greater flexibility in oilfield road construction to cut costs for industry, and to limit the impact of roads on wildlife habitat. Another group is tackling the NEPA process, to see if there are ways that gas projects can be approved more quickly without adverse environmental effects. A third group is examining new ways in which companies might save money on the preparation of environmental documents, and make some of those savings available for off-site wildlife habitat mitigation.

Environmentalists say they are open to expediting drilling in some areas if they can safeguard others - including wilderness study areas, historic areas such as South Pass and critical wildlife areas identified by state and federal biologists. But if the work groups fail to produce satisfactory solutions, environmentalists say they are prepared to take their case to federal court. Tom Throop says his group is administratively challenging a number of new applications for drilling to lay the groundwork for a legal challenge. Those appeals contend that the BLM is disregarding the cumulative impacts of the projects, especially on air quality and wildlife. Still, Throop hopes that lawsuits won't be necessary.

"This is the only opportunity to bring all of the parties together at the table to come up with a Wyoming solution," he says. "Otherwise a federal judge will decide this."

California Democratic Rep. George Miller, the keynote speaker for the Conservation Congress, told conservationists much the same thing:

"The days when one powerful group can bolt their way in and get what they want, take what they need, are pretty well gone in the West," Miller said. Successful solutions, he added, emerge only when a "broad stakeholder process based on the notion of arriving at consensus" is put into play.

Meanwhile, a field trip on the conference's final day revealed why oil and gas drilling is so controversial. At well pads in the Moxa Arch area - where BLM is reviewing proposals for 1,325 new wells - some areas looked well on the way to sound reclamation; one well pad would have been invisible had a metal spike not marked its location. At others, however, the scars of drilling still looked fresh after years of attempted reclamation and waste pits without netting to keep animals and birds out glistened in the spring sun.

For more information, contact the Rock Springs office of the Bureau of Land Management at 307/382-5350.

The writer works for the Casper Star-Tribune out of Rock Springs, Wyoming.

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