Does PXP proposal equal hazy Teton views?

Drilling proposal raises ozone, visibility concerns in Wyoming Range

By WHITNEY ROYSTER

Star-Tribune correspondent

| Posted: Wednesday, March 2, 2011 1:00 am

´╗┐JACKSON — Amy Ramage considers the possibility of high ozone levels around Bondurant as a result of increased gas drilling just one part of the problem.

The overarching problem, she said, is “overwhelming.”

“It’s such a huge, basically industrialization in an area that’s now prized for its scenic, rural nature,” she said. “Now’s it’s this huge industrial plan. It’s going to change the whole character of the area, in my opinion. It’s hard for me to believe that it’s even possible.”

Ramage owns a home in Hoback Ranches, a subdivision near an 88,000-acre swath now being studied for 136 gas wells from 17 pads by Plains Exploration and Petroleum, a Houston-based company. The company owns lease rights to the area and has submitted a proposal to drill in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. That draft proposal is open for public comment through March 11.

Cheryl Sorenson, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said a common misconception is the project is huge.

“Even if all 136 wells are developed, the project will be a fraction of the size of larger developments in southwest Wyoming,” she said.

Ramage, who moved to Jackson a few months ago in part because of her young son, repeatedly cited ozone and visibility impairments as her main concern about the proposal.

“I don’t think it’s really well understood what happens,” she said of ozone. “People sort of know, but there’s a lot of speculation. This area seems particularly susceptible to it because of winter localized conditions. It’s a huge concern.”

Ozone has become a creeping concern as levels in western Wyoming have exceeded federal standards on some days in recent years since drilling erupted on the Jonah and Anticline gas fields. On Sunday, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality issued its first alert in two years, noting that ozone levels would be high early this week and that people with health issues should take precautions.

Air quality in general is not addressed in PXP’s proposal. In public meetings, people have repeatedly pleaded with the U.S. Forest Service to establish baseline monitoring of air quality — as well as water and wildlife baselines — to better grasp how development will impact these issues moving forward.

According to the document, a “reliable wintertime ozone model is not currently available.”

It goes on to say the model for gauging ozone “significantly underestimates wintertime ozone concentrations and does not provide reliable estimates of project impacts” or federal compliance in winter. The document says research is under way to improve the ability to predict ozone concentrations.

Stephanie Kessler with The Wilderness Society in Lander said that is not good enough.

“It says there’s no problem with ozone but leaves this huge open door to this problem in wintertime,” she said. “It’s just inadequate. They should have at least talked about what we do know about the formation of ozone in the wintertime.”

Sorenson said substantial monitoring efforts are ongoing throughout Sublette County, which will provide a “significant amount of baseline data for the region.” She said the draft proposal by PXP includes “comprehensive modeling analysis.”

She also said the emissions from this project would be incremental during a time when industry continues to find ways to reduce emissions.

Visibility impacts

The impacts of drilling to viewsheds and visibility in the area and up to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks are also a concern. The document states cumulative visibility impacts in Grand Teton National Park under a more restricted alternative than the one submitted by PXP is 49 days per year, with 13 of those days a more significant visibility impact. In Yellowstone National Park, cumulative impacts total 24 days, with four days having a more significant visibility impact.

Cumulative impacts represent impacts up to 15 years into the life of the project.

Visibility impacts are also predicted in wilderness areas like the Gros Ventre Wilderness and Shoal Creek, to the tune of 62 days and 72 days respectively.

The Bridger Wilderness, which is considered a Class I air shed like the two national parks, is expected to have visibility impacts 129 days per year because of cumulative impacts from the proposed project.

There are expected to be visibility impacts in Bondurant 58 days per year and in Merna three days per year under the same longer-term amended proposal.

Sorenson said PXP has agreed to voluntary commitments, including limiting the number of well pads.

“This commitment will ensure the project remains small in comparison to the other projects, and emission levels will likely be minimal,” she said. “The company has also volunteered to retire nearly half of its lease acreage, which will further ensure the overall size of their development efforts and related emissions are kept minimal in scope.”

Ramage said, overall, she is troubled by the idea of an out-of-state company coming in and making the pristine Bondurant area “their own little Jonah in the woods.”

“It’s a direct transfer of wealth from the people that live here,” she said, as the company would make money by impacting the air, water and wildlife quality in the Wyoming Range. “We feel like our property values are going to go down.”