BTNF sends 44k decision back for more review

Wyoming Range oil and gas development back on the table

By WHITNEY ROYSTER

Star-Tribune correspondent

| Posted: Friday, May 6, 2011 12:00 am

´╗┐JACKSON — In a win for oil and gas companies Thursday, a Bridger-Teton National Forest official reversed her January decision to withdraw drilling leases on 44,720 acres in the Wyoming Range, opening the possibility the leases will eventually be issued.

Forest Supervisor Jacque Buchanan’s Jan. 25 decision to block oil and gas development on the range was appealed by four industry groups, which said the decision to pull the acreage from leasing was inconsistent with several federal laws.

“Withdrawing the record of decision will allow further evaluation of several key issues, including, but not limited to, the potential impacts to air quality, lynx habitat and mule deer migration routes,” Buchanan said in a media release. “Another decision will be forthcoming.”

Buchanan said the environmental analysis leading to the decision to withdraw the leases didn’t thoroughly explain the basis for several conclusions regarding the potential effects of oil and gas development.

Appeals filed against January’s decision were made by Stanley Energy, Inc.; Western Energy Alliance; Wold Oil Properties, Inc., and the Sublette County Commission. They cited the Forest Service’s failure to comply with several national laws including the National Forest Management Act, Administrative Procedures Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act and Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act.

Lisa McGee, national forests and parks program manager for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, said Buchanan’s decision simply means she will go back and revisit the analysis, and it wasn’t necessarily a win for oil.

“We are confident, once more analysis is completed, the Forest Service will be on even firmer ground to decide not to open up the Wyoming Range to more oil and gas leasing,” she said.

Cathy Purves, a science and technical officer for Trout Unlimited, agreed with McGee.

“We actually encourage this process,” Purves said in a media release. “We strive to make all our decisions based on sound science, and the science tells us that the nominal return from the estimated 27 to 181 wells that could be developed on this acreage is far outweighed by the value this landscape contributes to Wyoming’s sporting heritage. And with nearly 40,000 producing wells in the state, preserving this area will have no impact on oil and gas production in Wyoming , or the U.S.”

Representatives from the Petroleum Association of Wyoming and Wold Oil Properties Inc. of Casper didn’t return phone calls Thursday.

The analysis on the table in January was a supplemental analysis, the result of an appeal of an earlier process in which the public and the Interior Board of Land Appeals said the existing review and subsequent lease sales — begun some seven years earlier —did not adequately analyze the affects of leasing. Specifically cited were harm to air quality and Canada lynx.

Last month, U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., and other representatives from Western states urged the regional forester to reverse Buchanan’s decision, saying it “takes a dangerous step to reduce America’s energy security, tramples on the property and contract rights of private companies and prevents the development of oil and gas reserves.”

The acreage in Thursday’s decision is not related to the more than 80,000 acres currently under review for a leasing proposal from a Texas company, Plains Exploration and Petroleum, also in the Wyoming Range.

The acres are also not included in the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, because the bill’s language allows existing, grandfathered leases to be developed.

The original leasing availability decision was made in the Bridger-Teton Forest Plan in 1990, which identified land within the national forest where oil and gas leasing could be considered. In 2004 the Forest Service authorized the leasing of the 44,720 acres within the Bridger-Teton National Forest, a decision that allowed the Bureau of Land Management to offer these lease parcels for oil and gas exploration and development.

Leases were offered in several sales in 2005 and 2006. Those decisions were appealed to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, which found appellants were likely to succeed on the merits of their challenges of inadequate environmental analysis. The BLM suspended leases on some parcels and classified others as “pending.”

Additional public scoping began in February 2008, which led to the supplemental environmental analysis, on which the January decision was made.