No deal yet, but PXP might be moving in right direction

Freudenthal gives tepid support to Wyoming Range drilling lease retirement proposal

Gov. Dave Freudenthal: Wyoming Range drilling lease retire 'good first step'

A pair of young antelope hustle across a ditch against the backdrop of the snow-covered Wyoming Range peaks north of Pinedale in this May 2008 file photo. Houston-based Plains Exploration and Production proposes to drill 136 gas wells from 17 pads a few miles south of Bondurant. Last week, the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association and the group Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife announced a proposed agreement under which PXP would agree to retire about 28,000 of its 64,000 lease acres in the range. (Mark Gocke/Star-Tribune correspondent)

CHEYENNE -- A proposal to retire drilling leases is a "good first step" in discussions about possible gas drilling in the Wyoming Range, Gov. Dave Freudenthal said Wednesday.

Houston-based Plains Exploration and Production proposes to drill 136 gas wells from 17 pads a few miles south of Bondurant. Last week, the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association and the group Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife announced a proposed agreement under which PXP would agree to retire about 28,000 of its 64,000 lease acres in the range.

The area is sensitive because it was covered by the Wyoming Range Legacy Act signed by President Barack Obama last year. The act put 1.2 million acres of the Wyoming Range off-limits to new leasing while allowing companies to retain the right to drill on existing leases.

PXP has held its leases for the Eagle Prospect/Noble Basin project since 2005. Under the agreement, the company also would allocate $6 million over the life of the project for purposes such as habitat projects and air and water monitoring.

Beyond that, PXP would be allowed to drill the 136 gas wells pretty much in the way that Bridger-Teton National Forest has outlined in a draft environmental impact statement. Last week's release of that document, which doesn't include lease retirements, opened a 90-day public comment period.

"I appreciate that a couple of years ago when I expressed my concerns with their plans for exploratory drilling, PXP went back and took a more detailed look," Freudenthal said in a media release. "Given the location of this project, great care needs to be taken to ensure that while PXP is exercising its right to develop the leases, the environment of the Wyoming Range is protected."

Gov.-elect Matt Mead, who takes office in January, said he wanted to hear from more people and review the plans before commenting on them publicly. He said it would be premature to judge the project before listening to both sides of the issue and before evaluating the U.S. Forest Service study.

A member of Citizens for the Wyoming Range suggested the idea could be built upon. The group played an important role in putting most of the scenic mountain range in western Wyoming off-limits to new drilling but wasn't involved in the proposed agreement announced by the sportsmen groups.

Dave Willoughby wrote an opinion-editorial calling on Bridger-Teton National Forest to "hammer out a better deal" with a wider group of people. "It's worth remembering that this is our forest. It doesn't belong to Texas oil companies and it doesn't belong to people in Washington, D.C. We were not invited when a deal was drawn up at some boardroom table in Houston to drill up our forest," he wrote. "Sidestepping regular Wyoming people in a deal like this isn't right."

Like Freudenthal, Willoughby called the lease retirement proposal a good first step -- one that could be built upon and improved.