Reprinted with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. Not for republication by Wyoming media.
The Bureau of Land Management has approved the first drilling project inside northwest Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest in more than 20 years, raising concerns among environmentalists that the nation’s first national forest will become a host to energy development.
At issue is a decision record signed last week by BLM Lander Field Manager Rick Vander Voet, authorizing Casper, Wyo.-based Hudson Group LLC to drill a single exploratory oil well on the southeast corner of the 2.4-million-acre national forest.
Formal appeals to the decision record can be filed through Feb. 13. Depending on the number of appeals and the time it takes to resolve them, Hudson Group could begin drilling the “Scott #2 Well” as early as July 1, according to Rick Metzger, district ranger for the Wind River Ranger District in the Shoshone National Forest.
BLM and the Forest Service worked jointly on an environmental assessment (EA) of the drilling project, as the Forest Service is responsible for surface impacts to forestland while BLM manages the subsurface mineral rights.
The EA concluded the project — which would disturb 4.5 acres and require less than a quarter-mile of new roads to access the drilling site — would cause no significant impact to the massive forest. And officials with both agencies say they have added conditions for permit approval that will help ensure drilling activity does not harm it.
Among the conditions is a mandate limiting drilling activity to between July 1 and Oct. 15 so as not to disrupt big-game migration to and from winter habitat in the region. And Hudson Group has agreed to a water monitoring plan that involves monitoring water quality in Tappan Creek upstream and downstream of the drilling site, Metzger said.
The Forest Service has also required Hudson Group to post a $65,000 reclamation bond to cover a “worst-case scenario” in which the agency had to pay to clean up and restore the well-pad site and new road, Metzger said.
“We feel confident that our mitigation measures and production feature designs will minimize impacts,” he said.
Limited resource potential
But some environmentalists are concerned the project could lead to increased drilling in Shoshone.
That will largely depend on whether the exploratory well uncovers significant petroleum reserves at the site. Hudson Group owns 10 leases in the forest, but expanding operations with additional wells would require further environmental review, Metzger said.
Stephanie Kessler, the Wilderness Society’s Wyoming program manager in Lander, Wyo., said the group wanted the Forest Service to consider the potential impacts of additional drilling activity in the area.
“One frustration we had with the analysis process for the Forest Service is they kept looking at this as a one-well impact,” Kessler said. “It seems like the agencies believe the [Scott #2 Well] is going to be a dry hole and they aren’t going to worry about it, but you never know.”
Indeed separately, Oklahoma-based Windsor Energy Group had until recently been considering an exploratory well on the northeast side of Shoshone. The Forest Service was set to release an EA authorizing the project when the company unexpectedly announced in December that it was withdrawing the application.
Metzger said recent exploratory wells drilled outside the national forest about 2 miles from the Scott #2 Well site came up dry.
What’s more, a small collection of oil wells southeast of the national forest have been in operation since the 1950s but have only produced a modest amount of oil over the decades, said Stuart Cerovski, a BLM resource adviser in Lander who evaluated the Hudson Group proposal.
“Those wells never came in as huge gushers, so to speak. So, I guess you could extrapolate that into this area and say, ‘Oh, there’s really nothing fabulous here,'” said Cerovski, a petroleum engineer by training. “They won’t be finding another Prudhoe Bay [Alaska] out here.”
A pristine region
The site of the drilling project in the Shoshone National Forest near Dubois, Wyo., is in the Upper Wind River Valley — a region that contains some of the most pristine wildlife habitat in the lower 48 states.
It comes as BLM works to finalize a revised resource management plan (RMP) covering 2.4 million acres in the agency’s Lander Field Office, which abuts the Shoshone National Forest and includes Dubois.
The draft RMP notes the Lander Field Office has “high value wildlife resources,” including habitat for the endangered gray wolf, grizzly bear and Canada lynx. The region is also home to North America’s largest wintering herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and one of the largest wintering elk herds.
Among other things, the draft RMP calls for leaving more than 100,000 acres near Dubois off-limits to drilling activity.
The single Scott #2 Well could disturb a key elk migration corridor between Yellowstone National Park and winter grounds within the national forest near Dubois, said Lisa McGee, national forest and parks program director for the Wyoming Outdoor Council in Jackson, Wyo.
McGee and others have also raised concerns about impacts to creeks and streams that are popular with anglers for their abundance of brook, cutthroat and rainbow trout. The nearest waterway to the proposed drilling site is Tappan Creek, which flows directly into Horse Creek, a popular trout fishing stream.
“The Upper Wind River Valley is a critical area for wildlife,” McGee said.
McGee said the Wyoming Outdoor Council and other environmental groups would be willing to sit down with officials from the Hudson Group to discuss a potential buyout of the lease. McGee said her group has reached out to the company in the past but has never received a response.
Hudson Group officials declined to comment for this story.
“Because they can’t drill until the middle of July due to seasonal restrictions, we do have some months to talk to the company,” McGee said. “We would hold out some hope that the company might change its mind and we see some lasting protection in this area.”
Click here to read BLM’s decision record.
(Banner photo by Margarita Castillo/Flickr)
Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.