Volume 104, Number 51 - December 20, 2007
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Public input sought on PXP drilling plan
Texas-based drilling company Plains Exploration and Production’s (PXP) has increased efforts in recent weeks to meet with all levels of the community that would experience impacts from the operator’s plan to drill for oil on the Noble Basin off the Upper Hoback River.
And now that the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) released the Notice of Intent (NOI) for a master development plan of the project on Dec. 10, anyone in the general public can participate in reviewing the proposal for possible full-field development along the Hoback Rim.
The USFS NOI specifically announces the agency’s plan to release a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on PXPs proposed project by May. The agency submitted scoping statements to more than 500 agencies and organizations last Friday, along with maps of the potential development, with the intent to invite the public to review the proposal and offer opinions and suggestions. The scoping statement and maps are also available on the Bridger-Teton National Forest Web site at: http://www.fs.fed.us/r4/btnf/projects/.
An extended public response period allows for commentary submission until Feb. 7. Greg Clark, USFS Big Piney district ranger, said the USFS has already met with various organizations to look over the proposal. “We’ll review it with anyone who wants to review it with us,” Clark said.
PXP’s current proposal, expanded from its original plan of only drilling three exploratory wells on the Rim, includes drilling 136 wells on 17 pads.
At this point, the oil and gas operator is attempting to plan the project in a way that minimizes environmental impacts.
The preliminary plan anticipates only affecting about 400 acres at a measured drilling pace spanned over 12 years. The operator would limit infrastructure changes to construction of only about four miles of new road, Clark said, and upgrades of 14 existing roads.
The USFS will also consider the alternative of using helicopter access, so PXP could haul equipment to the wells from the air, instead of building new roads.
Although PXP can’t begin drilling before the USFS releases a Record of Decision (ROD) on the proposal, the operator already obtained the right to drill in the area when it bought a 20,000-acre lease on the Rim in 1994, Clark said. At this point, the USFS can only halt drilling if certain details of the project will clearly cause more harm than good. “The question of if we’re going to drill has been decided — how we may get there and do it hasn’t been decided,” Clark said.
Whether full-field development occurs still depends on if the first three exploratory wells actually reveal any oil in the area, but local residents are opposed to drilling regardless. “I thought three wells were too many, and full-field development is certainly not something we’re open to,” said Linda Cooper, who organized Stop Drilling, Save Bridger-Teton (SDSBT) two years ago to halt energy development in the Hoback region. “It’s simply the wrong place, it’s not a matter of the number of wells.”
The leasing unit includes habitats for a variety of wildlife, Cooper said, including moose, elk and mule deer. The Grand Teton National Park also sits 32 miles away, and air pollution from any number of wells could easily carry over to the pristine forest, she said.
SDSBT petitioned against the drilling and even persuaded Wyoming U.S. Congressman Mike Enzi to declare his opposition to the project this summer.
The group is far from alone in opposing the project. In fact, 19,000 people voiced similar criticism after the release of PXP’s first draft EIS earlier this year, and that was only analyzing three exploratory wells, not full-field development.
Aside from voicing environmental concerns, people attacked the operator for “pretending they only wanted to drill three wells,” Cooper said, when PXP spokespeople had openly admitted they hoped for a full-scale operation.
Despite not knowing if any retrievable oil in fact lay waiting beneath the Noble Basin surface, PXP asked the USFS to scrap the three-well EIS and develop a “master plan” EIS that would address impacts from possible full-field development.
“We believe that the Noble Basin master development plan is a modest plan that allows us to develop resources in an environmentally compatible way,” said Steven Rusch, PXP vice president of environmental, health safety and government affairs.
Because PXP is the only operator drilling in the area, development will be restricted to only four wells a year with one pad per square mile, which Rusch called “the lowest intensity around.”
Every pad will sit at least a mile away from the Hoback Ranches subdivision, and PXP has planned drilling locations to accommodate big game patterns, geology and timber.
“We lay things out mostly in treeless scrub locations, off the ridge lines, because that’s where the hunters like to be,” Rusch said.
Gary Amerine, co-founder of Citizens Protecting the Wyoming Range, admitted that the drilling sites won’t overlap his outfitting company’s expeditions in the Hoback region, and that the current road plans around the pads are appealingly minimal.
He’s more concerned that the project will set precedent for larger developments on the rest of the Wyoming Range, particularly on the currently suspended 40,0000-acre leases. “If the PXP project goes forward with this 44,000 acres sitting in the background without a decision on it, it might put even more pressure on developing the suspended acres than there is now,” he said. “We’re sort of looking at the Wyoming Range as what the Jonah Field looked like 15 years ago.” PXP has met with Amerine “on numerous occasions” to discuss his concerns, Amerine said, as well as held meetings with the Game and Fish Department (GFD), the Sublette County commissioners, local ranchers and sportsmen.
“Whether (the meetings) have any substance or not, I don’t know,” Amerine said. “I do know (PXP employees) are pretty set in their ways on this — they feel they have the potential to tap into a huge national gas source, so this is definitely something they want to do.”
Rusch agreed that though PXP will hold more public meetings in January for those who “want to work constructively on a development project,” it “won’t meet (PXP) objectives” to speak with people opposed to any kind of development.
Plenty of time still remains for discussion, as the USFS probably won’t release the final ROD until 2009.
For Cooper, however, discussion isn’t the answer. “The (drilling approval) process doesn’t seem to allow the public will to be exerted,” Cooper said. “If there are 19,000 comments against development, and the governor is against it and Wyoming’s congressional delegates aren’t wild about the location, then what in the world else does the Forest Service need to say ‘no’?”
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