Public comments flood Bridger-Teton

 

Wyoming Range drilling proposal draws tens of thousands of comments

By WHITNEY ROYSTER

Star-Tribune correspondent

| Posted: Sunday, March 13, 2011 1:30 am

´╗┐JACKSON — Bridger-Teton National Forest officials were expecting nearly 10,000 public comments this past week alone as the comment period for a controversial gas project in western Wyoming drew to a close Friday.

With 30,000 comments already received, forest officials said most of them were against a proposal by Plains Exploration and Production to drill 136 wells on 17 pads outside Bondurant in the Wyoming Range.

Mary Cernicek, spokeswoman for the Bridger-Teton, said there hadn’t been any problems during the public comment period through late last week, and the forest expected to respond to everyone that submitted comments.

The next step will be determined by issues raised, and no timeline has been set, Cernicek said.

Dan Smitherman is with the Citizens for the Wyoming Range. He said, at a minimum, he’d like to see the Forest Service issue a supplement to the current draft proposal, or a new draft entirely.

“This draft is flawed, there are just too many weaknesses in it,” he said. “If the Forest Service doesn’t revise it and let us take a look at whatever is in there, it’s not going to be fair to the public.”

Smitherman said another option is for the company to voluntarily retire its leases.

Yet another option is a buy-back of leases. Smitherman said it’s possible after the public comment period closes, PXP will see the public is so opposed and environmental standards will be so strict, a buy-out will be an attractive option.

PXP has said it would consider a buy-out. On its website, www.eagleprospectproject.com, the company said it would “entertain any market-based proposal by an environmental group or private entity to purchase the BTNF leases.”

“To date, however, PXP has not received a formal proposal to evaluate,” the website said in its Frequently Asked Questions link. “Only one conservation group, Trout Unlimited, has ever contacted PXP to have an informal discussion about the possibility.”

Cheryl Sorenson, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, expects most of the public comments the Forest Service receives will be “form letters from the East Coast opposing all activity given the heavy advertising by D.C.-based groups like The Wilderness Society.”

“The [draft environmental impact statement] is clear that the project will not contribute to air quality or ozone issues in the area, and that the project can be conducted with limited resources impacts,” she said. “PAW hopes the discussion focuses on what is possible and constructive and recognizes the valid rights tied to the leases.”

PXP’s proposal, which gave rise to the current draft environmental impact statement, started nearly a decade ago when the Houston company submitted a proposal to drill three exploratory wells on 4.5 acres in the area of Hoback Ranches to determine the feasibility of a larger development. The Forest Service released a draft environmental impact statement for that proposal, and was inundated with some 19,000 comments, mostly opposed.

The public said, in part, it did not want to give approval without knowing the company’s plans should a viable energy source be found.

PXP then pulled that preliminary proposal in late 2007 and submitted the more detailed proposal on the table now.

Years ago, the late U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., began introducing legislation that would put much of the Wyoming Range off limits to drilling.

The Wyoming Range Legacy Act was drafted in 2007 by Thomas, who died before it was introduced. It was introduced by his successor, U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and subsequently passed.

There were several valid leases not covered by the act that were “grandfathered” to allow drilling, including PXP’s parcels.