NATURAL GAS:

BLM studying massive Wyo. gas field expansion on mostly public land

The Obama administration has taken a major step toward authorizing what could become one of the nation's largest natural gas fields in southern Wyoming that, if built out over the next 15 years, could produce enough natural gas to heat millions of homes a year for decades.

The Bureau of Land Management today released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) analyzing the potential impacts of the Continental Divide-Creston Natural Gas Development Project, which proposes to add nearly 9,000 natural gas wells covering nearly 1.1 million acres of mostly federal land in Carbon and Sweetwater counties in south-central Wyoming.

The project would represent a major expansion of domestic energy production on public land at a time when the Obama administration has been accused by the fossil fuels industry and GOP leaders in Congress of all but shuttering federal lands to oil and natural gas development.

The project, proposed by Houston-based BP America Production Co. in 2005, essentially is an expansion of an existing gas field that has been in operation for decades, covers tens of thousands of acres and supports about 4,000 wells, according to BLM.

The draft EIS, which is open for public comment through Jan. 21, calls for drilling as many as 8,950 natural gas wells, including as many as 500 coalbed natural gas wells. The gas field is projected to produce more than 12 trillion cubic feet of natural gas over the 40-year life of the project, which is enough to heat as many as 3 million homes a year, said Serena Baker, a BLM spokeswoman in Rock Springs, Wyo.

Planned facilities associated with the drilling expansion would include well pads, gas and water collection pipelines, compressor stations, water disposal systems, an access road network and an electrical distribution system, according to BLM.

The agency expects to issue a final EIS in the summer of 2014 and a record of decision authorizing the project that fall.

It would create as many as 2,500 jobs and more than $9 billion in county property taxes and federal royalties on natural gas and gas condensate production over the life of the project, BLM said.

The agency began public scoping on the multivolume draft EIS, which includes an air quality technical support document and appendices covering thousands of pages, in early 2006. It took more than six years to complete.

Larry Claypool, BLM's deputy state director for minerals and lands in Cheyenne, said in an emailed statement to Greenwire that BLM's draft EIS represents "a comprehensive analysis" of the project to make sure it is done right.

"We recognize the scope of this project has the potential to be important in helping the Nation achieve energy independence," Claypool said.

The proposed drilling project would cover about 625,000 acres of BLM land and nearly 400,000 acres of private property, according to BLM. A small section of state land comprising less than 50,000 acres of the project area is also involved.

The draft EIS notes impacts to crucial ranges for big-game habitat and says significant environment mitigation measures will be required before drilling can begin.

Environmentalists say they will need weeks to study the enormous document.

But Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Laramie, Wyo., noted that the area is already heavily drilled and that many big-game species like elk have fled the area, although the region is home to pronghorn antelope as well as smaller mammals like pygmy rabbits whose habitat needs to be protected.

"The bottom line here is that with more than 8,900 wells proposed, the key to pursuing this project in an environmentally responsible way is to make sure all the oil and gas operators use directional drilling and cluster as many wells on as few well pads as possible," Molvar said. "They need to minimize the footprint so that the greatest development occurs on well pads and roads already in use."

BP and other energy companies that would operate in the gas field would consolidate wells on well pads in an effort to achieve "less land disturbance and lower development costs," according to BLM.

Chris Merrill, the communications director for Lander, Wyo.-based Wyoming Outdoor Council, said the group has been following the developing project for years and has concerns about the potential impacts of all the drilling on the region's air quality.

The massive Pinedale Anticline oil and gas field in the Upper Green River Basin to the west of the Continental Divide-Creston project has struggled with air pollution. U.S. EPA last spring declared the entire basin in violation of the federal ground-level ozone standard.

BLM in September approved a plan to provide electric power to run thousands of oil and natural gas compressors in an effort that federal regulators and industry leaders say will significantly reduce air pollution across southwest Wyoming (EnergyWire, Sept. 6).

To gauge the impacts of the Continental Divide-Creston expansion project on regional air quality, BLM prepared a photochemical grid model for far-field ozone analysis that included the most extensive and up-to-date emissions inventory in Wyoming, according to BLM.

The result: Projected project emissions met the federal ozone standard.

"The Wyoming Outdoor Council's biggest concern -- and what we'll be focusing on the most -- is making sure this project is done right relative to air quality," Merrill said. "This is going to be an enormous development. It would be one of the largest of its kind on the planet if it goes forward as proposed. So this development needs to be conducted in such a way that residents and workers are safe and can breathe clean air -- and that the air and land stays healthy."

Click here to read the draft EIS.

Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.