Impediments to drilling

Impediments to drilling

A new report compiled by the Bureau of Land Management says industry has more impediments to energy development in Wyoming’s Green River Basin than previously estimated, as more land holding natural gas has restrictions on drilling.

Lease restrictions on federal acreage in Green River Basin jumped to 50 percent from 37 percent in the new analysis. Those restrictions include prohibitions against drilling during the winter to protect wildlife.

Regarding access specifically to natural gas reserves, the new report said 76 percent of natural gas reserves in the basin have restrictions, up from 25 percent in a 2003 study.

Nationwide, about half of the oil and more than a quarter of the natural gas beneath 99 million acres of federal land is off-limits to drilling, according to the report that had been sought by industry to highlight environmental and other hurdles to development.

Just 3 percent of the oil and 13 percent of the gas under federal land is accessible under standard lease terms that require only basic protections for the environment and cultural resources, according to the survey, which was ordered last year by Congress. An additional 46 percent of the oil and 60 percent of the gas “may be developed subject to additional restrictions” such as bans to protect animals and sensitive terrain during parts of the year.

The revised inventory, released Tuesday, is starkly different from a study done three years ago. That version, which covered 59 million acres in the Rocky Mountains, estimated more than 80 percent of oil and gas was accessible, although in some cases subject to restrictions.

Energy companies disliked the earlier inventory because, they argued, it suggested more oil and gas was accessible, even when restrictions made drilling difficult or impossible. They lobbied Congress to force a change in the way the inventory is taken.

Two Wyoming areas, the Upper Green and Powder River Basin, were identified in the original report and are re-examined in the new document. Numbers reflecting leasing restrictions on acreage in the Powder River Basin did not change dramatically.

John Robitaille, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said he would agree with the report that there are more stipulations in the Upper Green than previously analyzed.

“I would hope that the BLM would take a very close look at some of the industry proposals coming out in areas of the Upper Green in how we manage these types of stipulations,” he said.

A new environmental study examining a comprehensive approach to drilling in the Upper Green — particularly looking at removing some winter restrictions — is expected soon. Robitaille said the industry proposals are “exciting and innovative,” and “trying to find solutions so everyone can accomplish what we all need to accomplish.”

The impact of the new report is unclear. BLM Director Kathleen Clarke said it was simply a “good, unbiased reflection of the realities out there on the ground” that would move to Congress for any decisions.

She said it reflected the conflicts the BLM has to work with in balancing energy development with environmental considerations and a multiple-use mandate. Clarke would not say whether the document showed industry faces tough restrictions or whether the BLM has strict requirements to protect the environment.

Representatives of The Wilderness Society called the report “a transparent and misleading attempt to support a pro-industry drilling agenda.”

In a release, the group said the report assumes leasing stipulations to protect wildlife are rarely waived, when “in reality the BLM waives these stipulations all the time.” In the Pinedale area in recent weeks, the BLM has waived 21 winter closure stipulations at the request of industry, and has denied none, in spite of concerns expressed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

“This is another biased report from a discredited administration that views laws protecting clean air, water and wildlife not as beneficial, but only as impediments to their allies in oil and gas industry,” said The Wilderness Society’s Pete Morton.

The group also said the report fails to take into account “economic constraints on production.” In recent years as more and more land has been opened to energy development, industry has scrambled to develop manpower to tap the reserves. Many leases go unused as companies don’t have the resources to handle all their permits in some areas.

The new study outlines limitations on development. Those limitations include “conditions of approval,” including seasonal restrictions, and “no surface occupancy.” It also includes land with standard lease terms, with no restrictions.

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