Green River Star -

By Camille Erickson
Casper Star-Tribune Via Wyoming News Exchange 

Energy project advances in Converse County

 

December 30, 2020



CASPER – In a highly anticipated decision, the Bureau of Land Management approved a massive oil and gas project proposed in eastern Wyoming.

The federal agency issued a final record of decision on Wednesday, allowing five energy companies to extract federal minerals within the 1.5 million acre project area. The oil and gas companies will now be able to take the next steps in their plan to drill 5,000 wells in Converse County over the next several years.

The final environmental review, published in July, allowed for the construction of up to 5,000 wells, 1,500 miles of gas gathering pipelines and hundreds of miles of water pipelines, along with roads, electrical lines and other infrastructure.

The federal government manages about 64% of the minerals within the project’s vast area.

After receiving public comments and giving Wyoming’s governor the opportunity to conduct a review, the BLM issued its record of decision. It was signed and approved by U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

“Completing this project highlights our efforts here at the BLM to encourage responsible development on our public lands,” said Kim Liebhauser, the acting state director for Wyoming’s BLM office. “I really appreciate all the hard work and attention to detail by everyone involved, which resulted in a balanced approach that facilitates domestic development while mitigating potential environmental impacts.”

The team of five energy firms behind the ambitious plan include Occidental Petroleum

Corporation, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, Devon Energy, EOG Resources Inc. and Northwoods Energy.

“We are still in the process of reviewing the record of decision but appreciate the BLM for their hard work developing and refining the document,” a spokesman for EOG Resources told the Star-Tribune immediately after the BLM published the decision.

EOG Resources is one of the leading producers of oil and gas in Wyoming.

The Petroleum Association of Wyoming said the finalization of the intensive environmental review places Wyoming in an ideal position.

“As the current pandemic subsides and global demand for petroleum products returns, today’s decision will position Wyoming to capitalize bringing jobs to east central Wyoming and much needed revenues into state coffers,” Pete Obermueller, the association’s president, said in a statement.

Earlier this month, Gov. Mark Gordon completed a consistency review of the final environmental impact statement and resource management plan amendment — two intensive federal regulatory processes associated with the Converse County Oil and Gas Project.

“This decision establishes what has been my goal from the beginning — to provide actual year-round drilling opportunities,” said Gordon in a statement. “It sets the framework for hundreds of jobs for Wyoming and ensures proper safeguards for the protection of our wildlife in the project area. I look forward to seeing this project and year-round drilling come to fruition in Wyoming.”

Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, along with Rep. Liz Cheney, also lauded the approval as a major victory for the state.

Converse County officials who fought tooth and nail to bring the proposal to fruition cheered the stamp of approval issued in the remaining weeks of the Trump administration.

Though the federal government issued the record of decision approving the development of federal minerals in the project area, several additional steps will still need to be taken before drilling can begin.

Operators will need to conduct site-specific reviews and apply for permits. How fast operators break ground will also depend on the price of oil.

Since the federal analysis of the vast development project began nearly a decade ago, there have been multiple booms and busts in oil and gas markets. This year, the price for oil has tanked under the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic and a global glut in oil. Though prices have slightly rebounded, the future of a massive drilling project like this one hangs in the air.

But Wyoming lawmakers have expressed sustained support for the formidable undertaking, citing the promise of up to 8,000 jobs and the potential for state and federal revenue to the tune of $18 billion to $28 billion.

Many have been pushing the federal government to complete its review before President-elect Joe Biden takes office and potentially follows through on promises to curtail greenhouse gas emissions or slow drilling on federal land.

As part of the record of decision, the BLM also moved to support an amendment to the area’s resource management plan that will lift “timing limitation stipulations,” currently in place to protect non-eagle raptors.

The revision will provide operators with the option to drill year-round, if they meet certain criteria. Doing so builds in more predictability and certainty for operators, project proponents said.

However, environmental advocates fear year-round activity could be deadly to wildlife sensitive to drilling disturbances, like hawks and sage grouse.

Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, criticized the agency for approving the amendment.

“BLM’s decision to approve the Converse County Oil and Gas Project will harm wildlife because it allows oil and gas projects to drill year-round in nesting habitat, instead of seasonally pausing industrial activities to protect nesting hawks, kestrels, ospreys, and owls,” Molvar stated.

Nonetheless, BLM maintained it had struck the needed balance between energy development and the protection of wildlife.

Critics of the project have said the toll the project could have on the environment and wildlife far outweighs the promised economic gains.

From the beginning, conservation groups have expressed reservations about the development, saying it could pollute the air, compromise groundwater resources, destroy Indigenous cultural artifacts or harm critical wildlife habitat.

Molvar, of the Western Watersheds Project, is particularly concerned about the area’s sage grouse populations, saying the species is in “big trouble,” especially in northeastern Wyoming.

“The Converse County project authorizes an intensity of industrial activity that is completely incompatible with sage grouse survival in some of the few priority habitat areas that actually did get designated for protections,” Molvar said. “With this project, the Bureau of Land Management is now turning its back on those promised sage-grouse protections.”

 

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