Coalition of groups send letter to Forest Service outlining concerns with PXP proposal

OIL AND GAS: Enviro groups protest Wyoming Range drilling plan (12/22/2010)

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

A coalition of conservation groups yesterday said a Houston-based energy company's pledge to limit oil and gas development in southwest Wyoming may not be enough to protect the area's wildlife, hunting and backcountry recreation.

In a letter to Bridger-Teton National Forest Supervisor Jacque Buchanan, the groups warned that an agreement by Plains Exploration & Production Co. (PXP) to retire nearly half its leases in the forest and spend millions of dollars on wildlife studies and mitigation for its other leases, fails to safeguard wildlife that are already suffering declines from nearby energy development.

The agreement reached earlier this month between PXP and area hunting and outfitting groups was struck behind closed doors and should be subject to public review in the Forest Service's environmental impact statement (EIS), the groups said.

"PXP's attempts in this case to remove barriers to drilling in the Bridger-Teton, and to expedite the permitting process, fall short of resolving the very difficult conflicts that would arise should development occur at the proposed development site," wrote Dan Heilig, attorney for Western Resource Advocates, and Lisa McGee, attorney for Wyoming Outdoor Council. "We do not believe the U.S. Forest Service should rely in any significant way on the product of a negotiation model that included signed confidentiality agreements, and secret meetings with limited stakeholders outside of the public process."

The letter was written on behalf of the Wilderness Society, Citizens for the Wyoming Range and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

In the deal, PXP agreed to permanently retire 28,000 acres of its 63,000 acres leased in Bridger-Teton, limit development to 17 well pads and commit $6 million over the project's 30-year lifetime for habitat mitigation, air and water quality monitoring and wildlife studies. PXP also agreed to set aside a 4,000-acre corridor for big-game migration and livestock grazing (Land Letter, Dec. 16).

After initial concern, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) said the conservation agreement was a "good first step" toward responsible development and that he would look forward to hearing more input from the public.

"This is a far cry from what we started with a couple of years ago," said Ryan Lance, Freudenthal's deputy chief of staff. "It recognizes the socioeconomic impacts of development."

New oil and gas leasing was prohibited on 1.2 million acres of the Wyoming Range as part of Sen. John Barrasso's (R-Wyo.) Wyoming Range Legacy Act included in last year's public lands omnibus package. Existing lease holders, which include PXP and two other energy companies, were allowed to pursue mineral development under standard environmental reviews.

But while the Forest Service cannot force PXP to relinquish leases or not pursue future development, most of the company's pledges could be required by the agency under existing environmental law, the groups argued.

"Many of the agreed-to terms in its proposal are things the Forest Service can and should already require of the company," the groups wrote. "And we have only to look at the questionable success of monetary donations for offsite mitigation and monitoring on the Pinedale Anticline to know that a pot of money is hardly a silver bullet."

A study completed earlier this year concluded that mule deer populations on the nearby Pinedale Anticline -- where companies have spent $5.6 million on mitigation since 2008 -- have dropped to their lowest levels in nearly a decade, fueling concerns that intensified development in the natural gas-rich region has reduced the herd's crucial winter habitat (Land Letter, Oct. 21).

"You can spend all the money in the world on off-site mitigation and it doesn't necessarily provide any benefit for mitigating impacts to wildlife" in the development area, said Stephanie Kessler of the Wilderness Society's Lander, Wyo., office.

Critics of development on the Wyoming Range warn that if PXP's initial exploration wells are successful, the area risks becoming a "Jonah in the woods," in reference to the prolific Jonah gas field in southwest Wyoming.

PXP agreed to limit exploration and development to a maximum of 136 producing wells "unless subsequent, additional environmental review is completed."

And while it also agreed to forfeit its right to petition to construct more than the 17 well pads within the development area, conservation groups warn the agreement lacks the legal muscle to stop the enlargement of those pads.

The project's new roads, well pads, pipelines and other facilities would disturb 328 acres over a 22-square-mile area, or about 2.4 acres of disturbance per well, according to the Forest Service.

The agency is taking public comments on the PXP proposal through March 10, 2011.