OIL AND GAS:

Fortification Creek drilling plan proceeds as BLM rejects enviro's petition

The Bureau of Land Management has dismissed a formal challenge to an agency plan that would allow nearly 500 coalbed methane wells to be drilled in an undeveloped section of northeast Wyoming's Powder River Basin.

The decision to authorize the drilling project in Fortification Creek also marked the completion of an environmental assessment (EA) calling for a "performance-based" approach and phased drilling over a 10-year period. Each phase would proceed only after the agency determines that the energy companies involved are meeting strict conditions to protect wildlife and sensitive habitat in the Fortification Creek Planning Area (Land Letter, March 24).

Lastly, BLM's decision authorizes an amendment to the Buffalo, Wyo., field office's resource management plan (RMP) to allow as many as 483 coalbed methane wells to be drilled, 77 miles of new roads to be built and 1.6 miles of overhead power lines to be installed, but only if federal regulators determine the activity does not violate conditions meant to protect a unique herd of Rocky Mountain elk.

"If they can protect them, they can drill," said Tom Bills, the environmental coordinator in BLM's Buffalo field office.

Bills said that drilling could begin as early as this fall on federal mineral leases owned primarily by Marathon Oil Corp./Pennaco Energy Inc., Lance Oil & Gas Co., Comet Energy Services LLC and Yates Petroleum Corp. (Greenwire, Nov. 19, 2010).

BLM has estimated that as much as 1 trillion cubic feet of gas is underneath the 100,000-acre area, an amount equaling roughly one-fifth of what all natural gas-consuming U.S. households use each year.

"Clearly it's a potentially huge boost for domestic energy production," said Monica Deromedi, director of the Coalbed Natural Gas Alliance, an organization of about 600 energy providers, businesses, ranchers, farmers and individuals in Wyoming and Montana. "Frankly, there are a lot of places in the West like Fortification Creek where companies are dealing with access problems. And companies have shown they can, and they want to, do things the right way."

Lingering uncertainty

But environmental groups are not happy, and they are considering filing a lawsuit in federal court to block the plan's implementation.

Eight groups, including the Powder River Basin Resource Council and Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, filed an administrative protest with BLM in April alleging the EA does not adequately protect elk -- a species already at risk from extensive oil and gas development in the Powder River Basin, they say.

In the 42-page document, the groups point to the "severity of impacts" that would occur to the isolated elk herd should the Fortification Creek area experience new development (Land Letter, April 28).

They also asked BLM's Wyoming State Office to conduct a full environmental impact statement (EIS) of the drilling plan to ensure such activities would not harm to elk or aid in the runoff of highly erosive soils at the Fortification Creek site.

"We're not aware of any other area in the country where BLM has gone forward with this many wells impacting this many resources where it decided the impacts would be insignificant," said Shannon Anderson, a community organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council in Sheridan, Wyo. "If you look at the number of wells and the assorted infrastructure, with all the pipelines and roads, that alone is a significant impact in our opinion."

Anderson, the primary author of the groups' protest document, also said BLM did not appear to take the administrative challenge seriously.

"They just kind of brushed it off," she said. "We had some wildlife experts working with us, including some former BLM folks who raised a number of questions about the feasibility of the plan and whether it can be successful."

One of those former BLM officials is Larry Gerard, a retired BLM wildlife biologist who spent 30 years in the agency's Buffalo field office.

Sufficient protections?

But in BLM's protest resolution report, written by agency staff in Washington, D.C., regulators concluded that "preparation of an EIS is not necessary" because the proposed plan "defines a suite of performance standards to ensure viability of the elk herd and maintenance of sufficient suitable habitat."

BLM noted in its report that compliance with the EA's performance standards "will be reviewed prior to each Plan of Development authorization" and that if "the performance standards are not met to BLM's satisfaction, the [drilling proposals] will not be authorized."

Bills, the BLM environmental coordinator in Wyoming, said the EA and RMP amendment merely "sets the stage" for companies to begin filing individual plans of development, which must then undergo additional analysis and review as required by federal law before drilling could begin.

"We'd be constantly monitoring those, and by staying into compliance with those performance standards you stay below significance levels," he said.

But Anderson said that approach is flawed if BLM is serious about protecting the elk herd and the broader Fortification Creek area.

"It's all very uncertain, and that's what BLM's analysis shows. They don't know what's going to happen," she said. "That's why we wanted them to do the more rigorous analysis up front because once you start permitting and the drilling starts, the resources are gone forever."

Click here to read BLM's decision record.

Click here to read the EA and the RMP authorization.

Click here to read BLM's protest resolution report.

Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.

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