Hours after Sen. Eli Bebout sent a letter castigating the Department of Environmental Quality for rejecting an energy company’s permit to dump millions of gallons of pollutants, the senator emailed a correction to the agency.
Bebout criticized the DEQ on Feb. 13 on Senate Appropriations Committee stationery after it rejected Atheon Energy’s bid to release 8.2 million gallons a day of produced water from the Moneta Divide gas- and oilfield. He signed the letter as committee chairman — his was the only signature on the correspondence.
The letter begins with “Aethon has contacted members of this Committee regarding the permit cited above.”
But that wasn’t the case.
His correction email reads “Aethon did not contact the committee, I mentioned the issue.” Further, “The letter is from me and not signed or agreed to by the committee,” the correction email reads.
WyoFile requested and received the text of Bebout’s letter from committee member Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson). WyoFile also received a facsimile copy of the letter on Senate stationery following a records request to the DEQ. The DEQ provided WyoFile with Bebout’s correction email following a second records request.
Gierau forwarded the text of Bebout’s letter to WyoFile, with a “cc” to Bebout at 6:10 Feb. 13. Bebout sent the correction to the DEQ about four and a half hours later — at 10:27 p.m.
Bebout wrote WyoFile about how the correction came about.
“The Letter was sent by my secretary and contained some misinformation and I corrected her,” he wrote. “The mistake was that Aethon had not contacted the Committee, but I had visited with them and that the letter was from me and not the committee. Although I had discussed with them the issue, the committee did not sign the letter nor did we vote.”
Nine times the letter referred to the committee or to “we,” ”us” or “our.” Gierau disagreed that Bebout was always referring to the committee when using the pronouns or the adjective, he wrote in an email.
‘Fast and loose’
Despite Bebout’s correction, the Powder River Basin Resource Council criticized his actions. “Frankly, Sen. Bebout plays fast and loose with the truth frequently,” said Jill Morrison, executive director of the council.
Bebout’s letter, “it’s a misstatement of the facts both in regard to who the letter was coming from and the permit and the history of this permit,” she said. “I don’t think Bebout would have sent that correction had WyoFile … not called him to account.”
Bebout would not comment on that last statement.
Dan Neal, a Casper resident and former lobbyist, didn’t like the way Bebout went about his business, either. “Using committee stationery without a vote of the committee authorizing the letter is bad process,” Neal wrote in a website comment. “The Senate Rules Committee should admonish him.”
(Neal served as a legislative editor for WyoFile last year.)
Bebout rejected criticism about the letter.
“Our statutes say that absent any obviously personal conflict, which I do not have, I’m obligated to represent my constituents which is exactly what I’m doing,” Bebout told WyoFile on Feb. 14. “I will continue to do that and I will use letterhead stationary to do that.”
He also criticized the Powder River Basin Resource Council, telling them to talk to Riverton residents who have shown “overwhelming support” for the project.
Gierau said as a committee member he was aware that Bebout was sending the letter, but did not see it before it was sent. “I knew he was writing it and [he] explained the situation to me and members of the Committee and his views on that situation,” Gierau wrote WyoFile.
“I did not sign the letter, nor did I see it before it was sent,” Gierau wrote.
The three other members of the committee — Wyatt Agar (R-Thermopolis), Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) and Dave Kinsky (R-Sheridan) — didn’t respond to emails from WyoFile seeking comments.
Millions of gallons of pollutants
Aetheon applied for the water discharge permit — in fact a renewal of an existing permit — as the energy company and Burlington Resources seek to expand the Moneta Divide gas- and oilfield by 4,250 wells.
DEQ rejected Aethon’s initial request to dump the pollution-ladened produced water and thousands of tons of solids a month into Alkali and Badwater creeks above Boysen Reservoir and the drinking supply for the town of Thermopolis.
Expansion of the gas- and oilfield could generate annual revenues of $106 million in county ad valorem taxes, $87.5 million in Wyoming severance taxes and $182 million in federal royalties, according to the the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which is set to approve the project.
“This project will generate thousands of … dollars for my district for schools, for the communities,” Bebout told WyoFile.
Bebout represents parts of Fremont County adjacent to the field and home to many potential Moneta workers and businesses. Bebout is also chairman and president of Nucor Oil & Gas and chairman and vice president of Nucor, Inc/Nucor Drilling, Inc, both Riverton companies, according to state disclosure forms.
DEQ paid Bebout’s Nucor companies more than $35 million for work between 2013 and 2018, according to Open the Books, a public-interest organization that tracks state payments. As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he also plays a pivotal role in the funding of agencies, including the DEQ.
The DEQ is considering a new, different permit renewal for Aethon, one that would authorize the discharge of far fewer pollutants than the company originally sought. That permit and the pending BLM approval of Moneta Divide expansion would enable work to accelerate in the Moneta Divide field.
Bebout’s letter to the DEQ criticized the agency for stepping back from Aethon’s original pollution-dumping request. “Primary among our concerns is that the State not backtrack on agreements reached in the permitting process,” Bebout’s letter reads.
Bebout’s letter is “an attempt to intimidate the DEQ,” Powder River’s Morrison said. “It’s an attempt by a powerful politician to bully the agency.”
Bebout’s legislative work — “it’s not always in the best interest of the public — it’s in someone else’s private, best interest” she said.
Bebout told WyoFile he has no working, royalty or lease interests in the Moneta Divide field, and has not worked for Aethon lately. He “would love to have the opportunity to work for them,” in the future, he said.
“You know,” he told WyoFile Feb. 14, “when we get to the point where a person can’t make an honest living, and do what he does because they’re trying to say I’m bullying, you know that’s ridiculous.”
Aethon will expand the field “in a very sound, responsible manner,” he told WyoFile. “They’ve been doing it that way for 50 years.”
The DEQ, however, recently told Aethon it has not operated as required. In December, DEQ issued Aethon a letter of violation saying it had exceeded parameters set for its existing Moneta Divide discharges. About 800 wells exist in the gas and oilfield today.
— Andrew Graham contributed to this story.