Volume 8, Number 10 - May 29, 2008
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BTNF Cancels Wyoming Range MOU
In an unprecedented move, the Bridger-Teton National Forest is dissolving its Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Stanley Energy, a major lease holder within the BTNF’s 44,720 acres of Wyoming Range suspended leases being reexamined in an environmental analysis the company was underwriting. The MOU outlined what role Stanley Energy would play in the Forest Service’s new SEIS, with the company footing the bill estimated to run $350,000 to $500,000. Its cancellation means Stanley no longer has a seat at the table during the new SEIS process.
The new SEIS is being conducted to determine whether new information would change BTNF Supervisor Kniffy Hamilton’s previous decision to let out the Wyoming Range drilling leases. The new process responds to the Department of Interior’s Board of Land Appeals’ decision to remand the leases, saying the previous okay was based on outdated or inadequate information.
Hamilton’s decision was suspended and the matter was returned to the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The new process has reached the scoping notice stage. To this point, Stanley Energy’s role, in exchange for funding the EIS, could appear to have included influencing BTNF’s choice of contractors, attending meetings they shouldn’t have and editing public comments. Hamilton said two important steps will be taken to rectify the situation.
The first is to cancel the MOU and complete the EIS with Forest Service funds.
“The Bridger-Teton National Forest is taking this extraordinary step, not only to restore public trust in this particular environmental analysis, but to ensure its ability to use proponent funded environmental analysis in the future. Proponent funded environmental analysis is an important and commonly used tool that promotes governmental efficiency and reduces the cost to taxpayers.”
The second, she said, is to “post to the Forest’s Web site notes from planning meetings attended by representatives from Stanley Energy and the cooperating agencies involved in the project.”
However, the Wyoming Outdoor Council (WOC) obtained, through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, some emails between Forest officials and others about Stanley’s MOU and EIS issues that could read officials are leaning toward reactivating the leases, including Stanley Energy’s.
Further, Gov. Freudenthal reacted Tuesday with continued concerns about the project although he said the MOU cancellation “is a good first step.”
Canceling the MOU (which the Forest Service regional office previously stated wasn’t necessary) will be step number one to “remedy the situation” in response to public concerns, according to BTNF public affairs officer Mary Cernicek.
“Supervisor Hamilton came to this decision after closely working with the officials in the Intermountain Regional Office of the Forest Service,” she explained Tuesday. “It was (her) opinion that the best way to move forward with the analysis and instill trust between the Bridger-Teton and the public would be for the Forest Service to conduct the analysis without the financial aid of Stanley Energy.”
The public’s dissatisfaction – with what the U.S. Forest Service called normal business in light of high costs of EIS analyses – included very strong criticism from Gov. Dave Freudenthal – after he wrote a letter expressing his strong doubts about the “proponent” funding the cost of environmental impact analyses and sitting in on agency meetings.
“(A) pall of controversy hangs over this leasing SEIS because Stanley Energy (an interested stakeholder relative to a portion of these leases) has underwritten the analysis and is still operating under the suspicious MOU with the Forest Service,” Freudenthal wrote to Hamilton in late April.
“Public trust in this SEIS has eroded to a point where I do not believe it is possible to continue unless all vestiges of the current process are erased.”
Hamilton said in a BTNF release the decision to cancel the MOU was to “regain the public’s trust.”
“Public trust and confidence are essential to our success as stewards of the Bridger-Teton National Forest,” she said. “Mistakes were made in administrating a proponent-funded environmental analysis which has compromised that trust. It is critical we take immediate action to regain the public’s trust.”
BTNF will complete supplemental EIS “in-house using appropriated funds,” she said.
“The cost is still the same – between $250,000 and $500,000,” Cernicek said Tuesday. “’Appropriated dollars’ are dollars that the Forest Service gets from Congress to run the Forests.
Money will be shifted around so we can pay for the analysis ourselves and not utilize the money Stanley Energy had offered to complete the study. It means we won’t have a contractor any more. Arcadis... won’t be doing the work for us now. We will take our own money and pay our own people to get the study done so a decision can be made in December 2008.”
The second step is posting “notes from planning meetings attended by representatives from Stanley Energy and the cooperating agencies involved in the project” on the BTNF Web site, Hamilton said.
“The notes will be available on the Bridger-Teton website in the near future,” she said. “We look forward to continuing to work closely with the public as we complete this important leasing analysis for portions of the Wyoming Range.”
Cernicek said Tuesday Stanley no longer has a role in the analysis. “They are no longer paying for the study,” she said. “They will be able to comment on the analysis at the same points in time that the public can comment – those points that are identified in the NEPA process.”
As noted by both the Governor and WOC, the BTNF announcement comes with a new time-line.
In late April, Cernicek reported the draft SEIS would be released in November with the final decision on lease reactivation due in April 2009. This week, BTNF stated the draft SEIS is expected to be done by mid-September (nearly two months earlier) and after a period of public comment, the Final SEIS and Record of Decision will be complete by mid-December, almost four months earlier.
“We remain concerned that the Forest Service continues to push that this analysis be completed on a very short time line,” Gov. Freudenthal said Tuesday. “Development of the Wyoming Range involves serious questions about air quality, watersheds and wildlife, including such sensitive and threatened species as the cutthroat trout and Canada lynx. It is too critical to address in a hurried fashion.”
He said the Forest Service should await the outcome of U.S. Sen. John Barrasso’s (R-Wyo) Wyoming Range legislation that passed out of committee and onto the Senate floor earlier this month.
Lisa Dardy McGee, WOC forest and parks program director in Lander, echoed concerns about the accelerated schedule.
“True, we now are closer to ensuring an objective process without Stanley and its attorneys overseeing/driving the process, but the FS has taken a step backward with respect to the level of analysis needed—short cutting the timeline for an analysis by some five months,” she said in an email Tuesday. “The original draft was due out in November with a final decision in April 2009. Now, the draft is slated for Sept with a final decision in December. An accelerated timeline means that some comprehensive analyses – particularly regarding air quality – will not be done.
“This makes no sense unless it is as we feared a politically driven decision that this administration wants to make before it leaves office. The FS has said that regional level planners (in Ogden) are being tasked to this EIS as their first priority. It makes one wonder why the rush? Why not wait until after the forest plan revision process, where the FS can make a comprehensive, full-forest study of oil and gas availability. From there, individual leasing decisions could tier to the updated forestwide (oil and gas) analysis. This is what the governor has advocated.”
“You will see from some of these emails that concerns were raised by FS personnel last August, so they were certainly aware that this situation would create the appearance of impropriety almost a year ago,” McGee said Tuesday in an email to the Examiner with FOIA documents attached.
McGee made FOIA request April 16 for records of communications between Stanley Energy, its attorneys Holland & Hart, Contractor Arcadis, USDA Undersecretary Mark Rey and the Forest Service regarding the Wyoming Range’s 44,720 acres of suspended leases, including the MOU, SEIS, Wyoming Range Legacy Act, contracts, SEIS funding and other leasing issues.
McGee has received requested documents from the BTNF and intermountain region office and expects more from the national level soon, she added.
Several FOIA’d electronic messages are included below.
Aug. 26, 2007: “Barry, Here are my edits and I do not know if they help. After I think about this, I am concerned with a MOU with Stanley with regards to the leasing action. I am also concerned about them paying...” wrote Big Piney District Ranger Greg Clark on to Barry Burkhardt, Intermountain assistant director for minerals and geology.
Aug. 27, 2007, “At the meeting in Cheyenne I think we agreed to use an MOU and the Holland & Hart folks want the documentation.... And it is a pretty standard process,” Burkhardt replied to Clark. “Since the leases are already sold, I don’t think there is any implied preference by having Stanley pay for the analysis... the competitive action has already occurred.”
The Wilderness Society forwarded an excerpt from a FOIA’d March 12 Forest Service “information briefing paper” stating, “The main issue is that the public is opposed to any additional leasing in the Wyoming Range...With this issue comes the big purchaser of these leases wanting to move forward immediately because they have already paid for the leases. Another concern is having the energy firm pay for the analysis. This is different than the other third-party contracts we have done with other energy firms since in those instances, they are doing it on the (Application for Permit to Drill) and already have the lease.”
Jared White of the Wilderness Society said, “Although the MOU is scrapped, it does not totally put to rest the question whether this is a predetermined process...”
Jan. 10, 2008: “I got a call from Andrew w/Holland & Hart who talked to Mark Rey yesterday.... Mark was going to give Harv (Forsgren, Regional Forester) the green light re: the 44,600 but Harv committed to giving the Governor a call before we did anything officially. Anyway in the next day or two we may want to be moving on the NOI – Press Release and the coop agency letter/... FYI...,” reads an email from Burkhardt, to Stephen Haydon, BTNF project lead.
April 10, 2008: “Good afternoon, Steve (Haydon). I hope you are fairing (sic) well in Jackson. Attached is a revised proposal for the air quality analysis. Please forward along to Arcadis and your air quality folks... Many thanks - Andrew (Emrich, Holland & Hart attorney).
April 10, 2008: “Here is what I received from Stanley and Jim Zafert and their suggestions for the air analysis. I told them we would look it over as they are proposing to reduce the amount of effort in the (analysis). Of course also this week was the big tado (sic) with all of Pinedale’s finest citizens demanding the guv take a stand to protect their health from fouled air. The first thing is would their proposal actually save us any time and/or money? And then would their proposal actually lead to what we consider would be a good analysis which would meet the requirements of the IBLA remand? Should I ask BLM what they think or should we just say no and get in line with Greg Clark and his approach? ... thanks... Steve.” Steve Haydon in an email to Arcadis and cc’d to BTNF and USFS officials.
Clear the air
So, suspicions linger in spite of the Forest Service’s public efforts to air out the SEIS process. The Governor seeks a slowdown; Hamilton wants to regain public trust yet documents released to the Wyoming Outdoor Council are being interpreted by someone to suggest the process is tainted.
Hamilton did not respond before press time with comment on the FOIA’d documents.
McGee stated simply what she sees is the bottom line. “I’d say that there are two things we/the public have asked for,” she wrote Tuesday. “1) an objective NEPA process; and 2) a comprehensive analysis of the impacts of leasing and development.”
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