From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 5, Number 29 - October 13, 2005
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Ending winter restrictions

by Cat Urbigkit

Natural gas operators developing their leases on the Mesa south of Pinedale have asked the Bureau of Land Management to end seasonal restrictions that were designed to protect sage grouse and mule deer.

The companies maintain that a better way to protect these species is to allow the companies to reduce the industry's footprint by allowing multiple wells to be drilled from single pads while allowing the activity to occur year-round. The companies propose to drill up to 32 wells from single pads.

On Sept. 16, Anschutz Pinedale Corporation, Shell Exploration and Production Company and Ultra Resources sent a letter to BLM Pinedale Field Manager Prill Mecham seeking assurance of year-round access tothe Pinedale Anticline. Questar has now joined the proposal as well. The companies propose to allow year-round drilling, completion and production activities while conducting research and monitoring effects of that activity on habitat function, sage grouse, pronghorn antelope and other wildlife, with the intent of minimizing or neutralizing negative impacts of drilling and completion activities, according to the proposal submitted to the BLM.

The operators propose to work with resource agencies in selecting strategic pad locations. Centralized facilities and liquids gathering systems will be used.

In addition to on-site mitigation, the companies will commit to a 3:1 off-site mitigation plan for both big game and grouse.

The proposal includes provisions to minimize the use of reserve pits and flaring while reducing rig engine emissions. Companies will bus rig crews to locations and maintain a controlled access station.

The companies maintain that this new proposal is an improvement over the development plan already approved by the BLM in 2000 and that the impacts on natural resources will be less than predicted for the already-approved development scenario. The new proposal calls for developing four times the number of bottom-hole locations with only 60 percent of the pads allowed in the Pinedale Anticline Project Area plan approved in 2000. This development scenario will reduce new road mileage by about 70 percent, according to the proposal.

The companies predict positive socio-economic impacts from the new proposal, noting that with the Nov. 15 deadline to end development activities each year comes an increased risk to employee safety. According to the proposal submitted to the BLM, winter stipulations create an artificial burden by concentrating work in a narrow calendar window, with the result being a higher rate of accidents during this period, especially during the spring ramp-up and fall ramp-down periods. Most of the incidents have been minor, but there have been three deaths on the anticline, all occurring during the peak summer activity.

The BLM has not yet announced what procedure it will use to assess the proposal, although the companies hope that the agency will prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement building on the planning process approved five years ago, rather than starting from scratch with an entirely new EIS process. Regardless, there will be ample opportunity for public comment, with the companies hosting informational meetings as well as the processes mandated by federal law.

"Time is of the essence for operators and stakeholders if this development plan is to be implemented so that it provides these significant enhancements to the largest PAPA area," according to the proposal. "Substantially more of the landscape will be available for inclusion in the plan if a decision is reached within a year of this request."

The BLM has authorized limited winter drilling on the Mesa in the past. This year there will be 12 rigs working throughout the winter on six multiple-well pads.

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