More data needed, says Gov. Mead

Mead: More data needed before Wyo. Range drilling

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The U.S. Forest Service needs to have more data about current conditions if it intends to gauge how a controversial proposal to drill for gas in the Wyoming Range would affect streams, air quality and wildlife habitat over time, Gov. Matt Mead said in his first detailed, public comments on the project.

Mead didn't take a firm stance on the project either way, saying in his letter to the Bridger-Teton National Forest supervisor that the plan to drill in the forest "requires the right balancing of interests."

"We are all interested in finding the right balance," Mead wrote in the letter dated Friday. "This is not a winner-take-all situation."

The Forest Service took comments through Friday on the proposal by Houston-based Plains Exploration and Production Co. to drill 137 gas wells from 17 pads a few miles south of Bondurant. The Forest Service released a draft plan for the Eagle Prospect-Noble Basin project in December, opening a 90-day public comment period on the drilling.

The Forest Service got a mountain of feedback: About 40,000 comments.

Company officials have said they've studied the project intensively and are prepared to take steps to offset damage from drilling. Environmentalists oppose the project, pointing out its location in important habitat for elk, mule deer and moose. The project also is close to the headwaters of trout streams.

Before weighing in on the project, Mead pledged to meet with people on all sides of the issue. The letter drew praise from Dan Smitherman, spokesman for the group Citizens for the Wyoming Range, which opposes the drilling.

"He obviously shares the major concerns that we've been talking about for months now," Smitherman said Monday.

Another member of the group, Dan Bailey, pointed out that Mead described the area not far from a scenic route into Jackson Hole as a "spectacular entrance" to northwest Wyoming.

"I think he's nailed a number of concerns spot-on," said Bailey, whose property along the Hoback River abuts the proposed drilling area.

One option for the Forest Service to gather more data would be to issue a supplemental environmental impact statement. Mead isn't specifically asking for that but would like to see either more baseline data or a plan for collecting it in the final plan for the drilling, said his policy adviser for natural resources, Jerimiah Rieman.

"The governor's extremely concerned about having baseline data on all of those areas," Rieman said.

The Forest Service already has access to data the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has collected about wildlife in the area, he said.

Mead also expressed concern in his letter about environmental monitoring after development begins. The draft study doesn't adequately define who would be responsible for monitoring water quality or what the goal of such monitoring would be, he wrote.

Meanwhile, recent problems with ozone pollution in the nearby Upper Green River Basin reinforce the need to for more air quality data, he said.

"The problem may only get harder to solve with more development in the area," Mead wrote.

The drilling would be the first inside the boundaries set by the Wyoming Range Legacy Act. The law signed by President Barack Obama last year prohibits new drilling leases on 1.2 million acres in the western Wyoming mountain range.

The act allows PXP and others with existing leases in the area to retain the right to drill following the usual federal review.