Helicopter flights for oil and gas seismic work riles hunters
— November 5, 2013
Many locals and hunters in the Baggs and Battle Mountain region of southern Carbon County are upset over frequent helicopter flights over cherished wildlife areas during the deer, antelope and elk hunting seasons this year.
GRMR Oil & Gas LLC and its contractor Tesla Exploration, Ltd., heavily relied on the use of helicopters to transport crews and 3D seismic survey equipment into sensitive wildlife habitat in southern Wyoming beginning late this summer, intending to avoid greater disturbance from the alternative use of ground vehicles. But it turns out the helicopter flights are a major source of aggravation, anyway, to locals and sportsmen alike, and possibly to wildlife, because the flights are taking place over prime hunting grounds during hunting season.
“Yes, we have received quite a few complaints from hunters this deer season about the activity of helicopters in this area,” Tony Mong, wildlife biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, told WyoFile.
However, Wyoming Game and Fish has no permitting authority over the activity. Instead, that agency consulted with the main permitting agencies — U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. GRMR’s Savery 3D Seismic project is large, spanning 136.5 square miles of “varied” terrain (and a mix of surface and mineral ownership) just west of Battle Mountain, and it was permitted under timing stipulations to avoid surface occupancy in critical winter habitat, as well as surface occupancy stipulations in the spring for other species considerations.
“The only time to shoot seismic overlaps hunting season,” GRMR representative Scott Hoenmans told WyoFile, adding that the company has a few more weeks to complete its seismic work in the area. So the helicopter flights continue.
After receiving complaints from hunters, state and federal officials consulted with GRMR and asked the company and its contractors to delay helicopter flights until after early morning hours — prime hunting hours.
Still, many locals are not satisfied with how the seismic work has been conducted. Larry Hicks, a Republican state senator from Baggs who also works as a natural resources manager for the Little Snake River Conservation District, said he believes the swarm of seismic activity — helicopter flights and associated crews on the ground — seems excessive. He said the work, no doubt, has been a major disruption to locals and hunters alike. Hunters, in Hicks’ words, “are pissed.”
“I’m surprised we haven’t had an unfortunate incident where some hunter tried to take a helicopter out of the air,” Hicks told WyoFile. “They’ve (GRMR and its contractors) been pretty disruptive for about two months.”
When asked if the level of activity has been excessive, Hoenmans responded, “We view that as a pretty subjective term. … No, it’s not excessive because of how much impact is not occuring verses not using a helicopter as a tool.”
Might the BLM have written the permit differently to avoid these wildlife conflicts? WyoFile asked BLM spokeswoman Shelley Gregory, who responded, “The BLM manages for multiple resources. It made a good-faith effort to find a balance between the interests of the project proponent and the public and hunters as well as protect resource values for the long-term and that is reflected in this project’s permit.”
For the state’s part, Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission supervisor Grant Black told WyoFile that he’s uncertain whether the agency’s authority extends to stipulating how helicopter flights for seismic work are conducted.
Seismic bonding questions
There’s another aspect of the seismic work that’s a concern for Hicks and some local landowners. GRMR’s Savory 3D Seismic project spans an area that includes a mixed ownership of minerals and surface, and while the company has struck surface use agreements with some private surface owners, it has failed to strike surface use agreements with others.
GRMR applied to the state, and was granted, an opportunity to post a bond to access some private surface for the project. Patrick and Sharon O’Toole, who operate agriculture and sheep operations in southern Carbon County, had voiced their objection to GRMR’s bond request before the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Patrick O’Toole said he believed he would have the opportunity to mediate with GRMR before a “bond-on” was approved. That didn’t happen, he said. And O’Toole plans to discuss the matter with the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission at its next hearing on November 12 in Casper.
“We thought we would have another hearing before they approved the bond,” O’Toole told WyoFile. “It’s clear now that bonding-on is preferable to working on surface use agreements.”
BLM confirmed that GRMR has worked out surface use agreements with some landowners, and not with others.
“Bonding-on” means that a company is allowed to post a bond in the absence of working out a surface owner agreement in order to gain access to minerals for seismic or development work. New legislation passed earlier this year was an attempt to raise the minimum bond-on amount for seismic work. Sponsors of the bill originally wanted to raise the bond to $12,000 or $10,000 per acre, but the final legislation set the minimum bond amount at $2,000 per acre.
Landowner advocates claim that the minimum $2,000 bond-on amount is too low, and that that low monetary bar provides an incentive to seismic applicants to forego striking surface use agreements with private surface owners, effectively cutting them out of the process to take part in managing energy activities with existing agriculture and other private uses.
Further, the new legislation, according to Hicks and other co-sponsors, was a needed fix to rogue seismic work that had taken place in recent years, resulting in severe surface damage during spring mud season and, in some cases, involved outright trespassing on surfaces where operators had no mineral interests.
Both Sen. Hicks, and Rep. Kermit Brown (R-Laramie) told WyoFile they suspect the bond-on application approved by the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission includes private surface where the operator does not have a mineral interest. However, the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission could not provide the GRMR documents necessary to confirm that accusation before press time.
Scott Hoenmans of GRMR told WyoFile he could not discuss matters of bonding.
Oil and Gas supervisor Grant Black said his agency is still working on the rulemaking that will implement how the agency carries out the intent of the new seismic bonding legislation.
— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. You can reach him at (307) 267-3327 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer
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