Public skeptical of so-called "deal" with PXP

Hunter claims gas deal stinks

Noble Basin advocates question pact made with energy company, sportsmen groups.

By Cory Hatch, Jackson Wyo.

Date: December 15, 2010

A deal between sportsmen and an energy company with plans to develop gas wells in the Noble Basin area of the Wyoming Range is raising questions from a conservation leader who says the public was excluded.

Last week, the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association and Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife announced a deal with Plains Exploration and Production Company.

Among other concessions, Plains Exploration will agree to retire 28,000 of nearly 53,000 acres of leases on the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Sublette County if the Noble Basin development is allowed to go forward.

But the deal doesn’t necessarily represent the feelings of outfitters or other sportsmen in Sublette County, Dan Smitherman, spokesman for Citizens for the Wyoming Range, said.

“It’s a private deal,” he said. “I’d be curious as to what the motivation was. The public wasn’t at the table.”

Further, Smitherman, an outfitter in the Wind River Range and a member of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association, said the deal was struck by the board of the association but was not approved by all the members.

“This issue was not discussed with the general membership,” he said.

Gary Amerine, vice president of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association and a longtime advocate for protecting the Wyoming Range from energy development, acknowledged the deal was made behind closed doors but said secrecy was necessary to bring Plains Exploration to the table.

Other concessions in the deal would require Plains Exploration to set aside $6 million over the life of the project to offset environmental impacts. About $4 million would go toward a fish and wildlife habitat fund. The agreement would also require Plains to relocate two proposed well pads to create a 4,000-acre buffer along the Hoback River.

“It’s the best deal that we can do,” Amerine said. “It’s even more crucial now that the Forest Service’s [preferred alternative] is to let them drill.

“If this agreement had not been negotiated, they would have continued to hold the 28,000 acres with no surface restrictions and no mitigation money,” Amerine said. “We could be in a much worse position today than we are now.”

Smitherman disagreed. He said the deal is ‘carte blanche’ for Plains to do what it proposed.

“Most of the restrictions would have been imposed by the Forest Service anyway,” he said.

The $6 million is not sufficient to protect the region’s wildlife resources, Smitherman said.

“There’s not a lot of money there,” he said. “And throwing money at wildlife problems has been a dismal failure so far.”

Any recommendation that’s put on the table is worth discussion, Smitherman said.

“But, I don’t see a lot of substance to this deal,” he said. “My concerns are,  one, the public wasn’t involved, and, two, at the end of the day it’s business as usual.”

The difference between this energy project and other proposed Wyoming Range developments is that Plains Exploration already has valid lease rights in Noble Basin, Bob Wharff, Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife’s executive director, said.

“People in Wyoming feel as strongly about protecting one’s rights as we do about protecting our natural heritage,” Wharff said in a statement. “There’s no question that PXP has the legal right to pursue drilling on all their leases.”

“The fact that they are willing to voluntarily retire their right to nearly half the lease acreage they hold while at the same time making a $4 million commitment to fund habitat projects and agreeing to keep the size of their development permanently contained is fairly remarkable.”

Amerine agreed, saying the deal is also supported by the Hoback Cattleman’s Association and the Sublette County Outfitters and Guides Association.

“Don’t get me wrong: All of this is going to have some impacts on wildlife,” Amerine said. “The other side is [Plains has] valid rights.”

Further, Amerine said, the acreage that would be withdrawn from leasing — the area from Kilgore Creek to Cliff Creek — is arguably more sensitive wildlife habitat than Noble Basin.

Plains Exploration officials said they were pleased to work out the agreement.

“The individuals that participated in these discussions have a unique knowledge of the forest and the project area,” Scott Winters, a vice president of Plains Exploration, said in a statement.

“We believe the combination of lease retirements, surface occupancy restrictions and substantial financial commitment to habitat projects PXP is voluntarily prepared to make demonstrates our commitment to environmental stewardship and will ensure the impacts of the project are kept to as minimal a level as possible,” Winters said.

State Rep. Keith Gingery, of Jackson, said the area is too special to drill.

“This would be a Jonah in the woods,” he said in a statement, referring to the dense Jonah gas field farther south in Sublette County. “The impact on wildlife, hunting and backcountry recreation would be too much. None of the development alternatives are acceptable. The only solution that makes sense for this area is a lease buyout.”

Bridger-Teton National Forest officials released a draft environmental impact statement proposing approval of the energy field last week.

An environmental impact statement is the most stringent level of analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The plan, outlined in a 532-page document with 879 pages of appendices, would allow the upgrade of 14 miles of existing roads, the construction of nearly 15 miles of new roads, 136 wells from 17 drill pads and the construction of gas and liquids gathering lines and facilities. The area is expected to be in production for more than 30 years.

Development would occur in two phases: an exploratory phase with the construction of three wells on one well pad over the course of two years, with 15 miles of roads on public land; and a development phase during which the remaining 133 wells would be constructed on six well pads.

In the document, Forest Service officials acknowledged the impacts to wildlife would last decades.

“Most disturbance to wildlife and wildlife habitat ... would be long term,  because even reclaimed areas would take many years to return to their original habitat types,” the draft said.

“Forested areas,” the draft said, “could take 100 years or more to return to their original, pre-disturbance condition.”

The plan goes on to list several species considered threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act that would be affected by the project.

The development “may disturb, displace, and affect potentially suitable habitats for Canada lynx, gray wolf, grizzly bear and greater sage grouse,” the draft says.

People can submit written comments to Bridger-Teton National Forest Supervisor Jacqueline Buchanan, P.O. Box 1888, Jackson, WY 83001.

Comments also can be sent by e-mail to Turn on JavaScript! with the subject line “Eagle Prospect and Noble Basin MDP DEIS.”

The plan is available at www.fs.fed.us/r4/btnf/projects. Comments are due March 10.

The Bridger-Teton National Forest will hold three meetings on the Noble Basin development in January 2011.