It's a proposal, not a deal

The Buzz: No final agreement

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

By Katherine Pioli

Jackson Hole, Wyo.-On Dec. 10, a document mysteriously appeared on my desk at JH Weekly. The cover read “USDA Draft Environmental Impact Statement: Eagle Prospect and Noble Basin Master Development Plan Project.” Having just written a cover story about Noble Basin [“Not your average tree huggers,” Dec. 8], I knew the importance of the document.

The new Draft EIS by the U.S. Forest Service for the Noble Basin project names five alternatives to drilling the whole area. A no-action plan would in essence scrap Plains Exploration and Production Company’s drilling project. There are three plans that allow for drilling with varying levels of noninvasive control measures. And then there’s a proposal that would retire the leases. None of these have yet been chosen.

Currently, the Forest Service prefers Alternative C, which allows drilling while enforcing regulations that would hopefully minimize stresses and impacts to the area. This plan will not decrease the number of pads created or wells drilled. Most of the regulations are time-related restrictions intended to minimize impacts on migrating and calving animals.

Alternative C states, “For the protection of moose crucial winter range … drilling and construction activity would end by Nov. 15 … [and would remain closed] through April 30.”

Further year-round protections under this alternative would create 500-foot buffer zones, or no surface occupancy zones, around moose habitat and riparian/wetland zones. In addition, nominal anti-pollution measures would be enacted.  
Responding to the presence of Canada lynx in the area, this alternative proposes that well pads may be relocated a minimum of 100 feet from forested areas and the project would avoid all removal of standing timber. 

The same day the Forest Service released the Draft EIS, a three-part email announcing an independent agreement between PXP, Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association (WYOGA) and Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife (WYSFW) arrived in my inbox. Unsanctioned and unadopted by the Forest Service, this letter is likely the very first comment sent to the forest service in response to the new EIS in support of Alternative C.

Of its own volition, PXP states that, in exchange for drilling on part of the leases, it is prepared to partially enact the Forest Service’s no-action alternative and “permanently relinquish over 28,000 acres of lease holdings west and north of the Hoback River.” Those forfeited lands do not include acres in the Noble Basin, but PXP does agree to give up its right to construct more than 17 pads in the basin, and to not exceed the proposed 136 wells before submitting to additional environmental review.

Possibly the most significant announcement from PXP, and the claim worth the most scrutiny, involves voluntary relocation of two pads. This single action, they claim, would “ensure the preservation of more than 4,000 acres included within the Master Development Plan area that provide an important migratory route for elk and deer and support historic grazing activities.” If true, this could be a deal clincher. Almost as important is its additional offer to withdraw its legal appeal of the BLM’s withdrawal of other leases on which PXP bid in 2005 and 2006, thereby backing out of a costly legal tug-of-war with the Forest Service that would inevitably gobble up taxpayer money.

The letter hammers out other details, specifics not included in the Forest Service’s document. These terms lay out certain dollar amounts PXP is willing to set aside for trouble shooting purposes in the case that drilling proceeds. Take, for example, the offer to commit $250,000 to study the health of moose populations in and around the project area. Or the $400,000 for assisting the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality with air quality monitoring in the area. Or the just-barely-short-of-an-outright-bribe of $250,000 committed to funding “projects that benefit the local communities immediately surrounding the area.”

With the Forest Service already favoring Alternative C, it is difficult not to throw up one’s hands and believe that everything has already been decided. The truth is that nothing is decided yet. The terms laid out in the letter from PXP, WYOGA and WYSFW are tempting. Not only is it more detailed than the Forest Service’s list of restrictions under Alternative C, the agreement shows that PXP is willing to voluntarily go above and beyond what the Forest Service requests.

Nonetheless, questions remain. There may be buffer zones around wetlands and riparian areas, but will the water PXP takes for drilling operations drain the wetlands anyway? Will it leave enough water for ranchers and farmers in the area? Timber may be left standing for the Canada lynx, but will the sound of traffic on the roads and the pumping of the oil rigs scare them away?

A half a million dollars may be given to monitor air quality, but will monitoring keep additional ozone from entering the air and compromising the health of local communities?

Public comment regarding the draft EIS is open until March 10, 2011. Comments go to: Jacqueline A. Buchanan, 340 N. Cache (P.O. Box 1888), Jackson, WY, 83001, or send an email to comments-Turn on JavaScript!.

courtesy Lloyd DORSEY/GREATER YELLOWSTONE COALITION
One of many educational summer hiking trips introducing locals to the Noble Basin.