From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 5, Number 43 - January 19, 2006
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Jonah not suitable for other uses

by Cat Urbigkit

During the life of the Jonah Infill project, the 30,000-acre area "may not be as suitable for the historical land uses of livestock grazing, wildlife use, and recreation until facilities are removed, lands are reclaimed, and on-site habitat function is restored."

That's the conclusion reached in the final environmental impact statement on the Jonah Infill Drilling Project that was released by the Bureau of Land Management last Friday. Public comment on the document will be accepted through Feb. 13.

Even though federal regulations suggest that EISs be "concise" and "shall normally be less that 150 pages and for proposal of unusual scope or complexity, shall normally be less than 300 pages," the Jonah FEIS includes a 400-page volume one describing most of the impacts and alternatives, accompanied by a 380-page second volume of appendices. Part of this EIS process included preparation of a content analysis and comments totaling about 600 pages, a two-volume air quality technical report total ingnearly 1,000 pages and a 178-page socio-economic report.

The FEIS responds to a proposal from EnCana Oil and Gas(USA), Inc., BP America Production Company, and other natural gas operators to expand existing natural gas drilling and development operations within a 30,500-acre area of the existing Jonah Field.

Currently within the Jonah area, BLM has approved or committed to 497 well pads with associated access roads, pipelines, and ancillary facilities. The operators propose to expand development of natural gas and condensate reserves from the Lance and other formations at depths of approximately 11,000 feet by drilling as many as 3,100 additional wells on up to 16,200 acres of new surface disturbance during the development phase, with a minimum of 64 well pads per 640-acre section, and downhole well spacing from 1 bottom hole/5 acres to 1 bottom hole/40 acres. The operators have committed to various mitigation measures that vary by alternative and propose to fund compensatory or off-site mitigation under some alternatives.

The FEIS includes 19 pages of operator-committed practices to protect the environment during development and operations.

The FEIS examined a range of alternatives, including: noaction; minimize directional drilling; minimize surface disturbance; and the preferred alternative.

The BLM's preferred alternative would limit total surface disturbance at any given time to 46 percent of the Jonah infill area, or a maximum of 14,030 acres. To mitigate environmental impacts as quickly as possible, the operators would be required to initiate reclamation of developed well pads where as credit would then be given, on an acre-by-acre basis up to amaximum of 6,379 acres, for areas the BLM determines have successfully been reclaimed. Under no circumstances would cumulative total surface disturbance exceed 20,334 acres over the life of the project.

Performance-based field management objectives would address key issues and significant impacts, particularly those associated with air quality. Monitoring and surveying would be required to determine if objectives are being met. An interagency adaptive management working group would be established to monitor the effectiveness of development guidelines, mitigation and monitoring, and to recommend to BLM any modifications to these proceduresbased on monitoring results.

Under the preferred alternative, the project is expected to produce nearly eight trillion cubic feet of natural gas, providing enough natural gas to heat 96 million homes for a year and generate approximately $6.1 billion in royalties to be split between the federal treasury and the State of Wyoming. The total economic activity from natural gas and oil will generate approximately $30.5 billion over the life of the project.

"The preferred alternative for the Jonah Infill Drilling Project provides a crucial domestic source of natural gas while minimizing the impacts of development through on-site reclamation, off-site mitigation and incentives to minimizing development's footprint," said BLM Wyoming State Director Bob Bennett in a press release. "This project will be a vital component of the Wyoming and national economy for years to come."

As part of the preferred alternative, the BLM is considering an interagency project office that would monitor reclamation efforts and oversee off-site mitigation projects. This off-site mitigation and project office will be funded by EnCana, which has pledged $1.1 million to begin mitigation projects and fund a staff of four employees representing the BLM, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and the Wyoming Department of Agriculture. This inter agency team will oversee field monitoring and mitigation, both on- and off-site. Under the preferred alternative, EnCana would provide a total of $24.5 million to fund off-site mitigation and monitoring projects.

As currently identified, these projects may entail pronghorn migration corridor protection; greater sage-grouse habitat preservation, protection, and enhancement projects; raptor protection; recreational resource augmentation; conservation easement development; air quality improvement projects; on-the-ground reclamation research with an emphasis on sagebrush; andcultural resource projects.

Anticipated impacts, as quoted from the FEIS

* Significantimpacts to topography are expected but not to groundwater resources.

* Although no violations of applicable federal or state air quality standards are anticipated, significant project-specific and cumulative air quality impacts to visibility are possible at regional class I airsheds (e.g., Bridger Wilderness Area) are anticipated under all alternatives (including no action).

* Significant impacts to soils (loss during runoff events, loss of productivity) could occur under all alternatives.

* Significant impacts to various wildlife habitats in the (Jonah infill area) have already occurred as a result of past and current oil and gas development activity. Wildlife that occurs in the (Jonah infill area) that may be impacted by this project include pronghorn antelope, greater sage-grouse, raptors and up to 17 BLM Wyoming sensitive species (most notably sagebrush obligates). On-site mitigation measures and monitoring would occur under most alternatives pursuant to the wildlife monitoring/protection plan; however, additional significant impacts to some of these species are anticipated. On-site habitat function should be restored as reclamation vegetation nears maturity.

* Groundwater depletions may adversely affect the four endangered fishes, but no impacts are anticipated to the other threatened and endangered species.

* During the life of the project and beyond, the Jonah infill area may not be as suitable for the historical land uses of livestock grazing, wildlife use, and recreation until facilities are removed, lands are reclaimed and on-site habitat function is restored.

* Beneficial impacts have included additional work opportunities, increased salaries and increased government revenues. Increased population growth has resulted in adverse impacts, including increased demands on infrastructure, social services, emergency services, medical facilities and housing availability, as well as increased crime that has burdened law enforcement organizations. The Jonah infill project will have similar types of beneficial and adverse effects, but the additional impacts are not expected to be significant in scale.

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