Great Divide: Can Development, Wildlife Coexist?

Environmental groups and some residents are advocating another option to the federal government's proposals for energy development in Wyoming's Red Desert.

CHEYENNE, Wyoming — Environmental groups and some residents are advocating another option to the federal government's proposals for energy development in Wyoming's Red Desert.

It's called the Western Heritage Alternative.

Even Gov. Dave Freudenthal said in a letter to the Bureau of Land Management that the alternative should be considered in the agency's final plans, though he does not advocate it outright.

That way, he said in a phone interview, selected portions of the plan could be used in the final recommended action.

But little has been written on what the alternative is or how it would work.

Erik Molvar of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, which authored the plan, says it is a science-based solution to the negative wildlife impacts he foresees under BLM's alternatives.

It accomplishes that, he says, primarily by placing large areas around raptor nests, sage grouse breeding grounds, unique habitats like the gnarled juniper highlands of the Powder Rim and historic sites like the Overland Trail off limits to surface occupancy.

It also would expand current or add new wilderness study areas, places closed to all future leasing, like Wild Cow Creek, Encampment River Canyon, the Red Lake Dunes and the Haystacks, a group of hills north of Adobe Town.

Adobe Town currently is protected from future gas leasing by its designation as a wilderness study area. But the land within sight of it is not.

"Any other place, it'd be a national park," Molvar says, adding that he hopes one day it will be.

Supporters of the Western Heritage Alternative say it allows nearly full extraction of energy reserves in spite of these restrictions. Their premise is most of the energy under lands with no surface occupancy can be reached through directional drilling. In that approach, a well travels diagonally or horizontally to reach gas instead of straight down.

BLM's analysis of the Western Heritage option estimates that 90 percent of the area in the field office would have no surface occupancy.

But Biodiversity Conservation Alliance calculates that 66 percent of the land in the Rawlins field office would be no surface occupancy and that 85 percent of that would be within one mile of a place where a well could be sited. One mile is within easy reach of drillers, and some directional drilling has accessed wells up to 6.5 miles away, Molvar said.

The plan's advocates say the benefit to wildlife would be enormous compared to the increase in expense to a profitable energy industry.

But John Spehar of the Rawlins office says any valid management plan cannot put unnecessary or unreasonable constraints on well construction.

The number of wells that can be constructed, he adds, is decided by state guidelines and site-specific conditions.

"Once a lease is issued, we have commitments to an operator to allow them to develop that resource," he says. "There are requirements that we not put such onerous constraints on the operator that they can't get that done."

The Western Heritage Alternative would create onerous constraints, he said. Dru Bower, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, says the Western Heritage Alternative is both unreasonable and unbalanced. She also disagrees that directional drilling can be driven by anything other than geology.

"Even if it's 66 percent with no surface occupancy, directional drilling is driven by subsurface geology, not by minimizing surface occupancy," she said.

Dean Stilwell, a geologist with BLM, agrees with Bower.

"I can tell you that the assumption that they could access these lands from a mile or so away is probably more optimistic than can be economically or technologically justified, especially for coal-bed methane wells," he says.

The reserves tied to individual wells often are quite small, he says, so the extra cost involved in drilling a hole directionally would not justify its existence.

"Generally we have to look at it on a case-by-case basis," he says.

Some directional drilling, he adds, has been incorporated into BLM's alternatives, but it would not be correct to assume all wells can be drilled directionally.

But Kenneth Kreckel, a retired petroleum geologist with 30 years of experience hired by the Wilderness Society to evaluate the potential for directional drilling, says it's certainly feasible and well worth the expense.

Using personal experience and published documents from drillers in the Pinedale area and from scientific sources, he estimates directional drilling could reduce surface impacts by 50-75 percent, while nearly all energy reserves could be drained.

"I would say the majority of what I've looked at would be reachable by a well a mile or so off," he says.

He also disagrees with claims that directional drilling would not be technically or fiscally feasible.

"I've done a lot of it," he says. "It will be more expensive, but the work I've done indicates it won't be a huge expense."

He estimates a 15 percent increase in costs to gas companies from directional drilling. "You have to look at that relative to the huge increase we've seen in product price," he says.

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