While acknowledging steep declines in the wildlife population around hot drilling areas in Wyoming, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) said a recent article in The Washington Post that accuses the agency and the Bush administration of turning a blind eye to the environment and to wildlife in the state is "misleading" and contains inaccuracies.
The article, which ran on Feb. 22 with the headline "Federal Wildlife Monitors Oversee a Boom in Drilling; Energy Programs Trump Conservation," charges BLM with putting wildlife biologists to work on drilling permits to the detriment of the state's wildlife and environmental needs. It quotes a disgruntled former BLM biologist who left the agency's Pinedale office because he said he was spending nearly all of his time working on drilling requests.
"They are telling us that if it is not energy-related, you are not working on it," Steven Belinda told the Post regarding the strict orders he received while working in BLM's Pinedale office, which manages 912,000 acres of federal surface/federal minerals and almost 300,000 acres of private surface/federal minerals. Major uses of the public lands involve oil and gas activity, recreation and livestock grazing, but Belinda said the agency has gotten away from its Congressional mandate to manage federal lands for "multiple use."
The Post story said BLM is pushing its wildlife biologists to work on drilling permits despite recent studies that have shown that the mule deer population plummeted 46% and the sage grouse population sank 51% in the Pinedale area of Wyoming over the last two years as drilling activity increased sharply. The article said the agency's own analysis showed that it had been redirecting wildlife funds to drilling permitting.
But BLM spokeswoman Beverly Gorny said the agency has spent more than $1 million on wildlife studies over the last two years alone, including $25,000 per year since 2004 on a mule deer study, $50,000 per year since 2004 on a sage grouse study with the University of Wyoming, $168,000 on a separate grouse study in 2004, $89,000 on another sage grouse study in 2005, $130,000 on a sage grouse study conducted with the University of California and about $480,000 on study recommendations of the Pinedale Anticline Working Group.
"We're certainly not ignoring the situation," she said. The wildlife declines are "certainly a reason for concern."
Gorny said BLM has approved about 400 applications for drilling permits (APD) per year in the Pinedale area since 2004 and expects a similar number this year. The agency approved a total of 3,400 APDs in the state of Wyoming as a whole in 2005, which was about 200 fewer permits than in 2004, but it expects an increase in 2006.
"There is a wildlife biologist that goes on site for every single APD that is filed, so when I tell you we had  APDs filed in 2004 and 2005 for Pinedale, that's 400 times that a wildlife biologist went out on the ground and looked at what the situation was and worked with the oil and gas developer on how to mitigate any impacts to wildlife," said Gorny.
She said there been an incorrect assumption that when a biologist is going out and doing a site inspection on a drilling site, it must be an energy action not a "wildlife action."
"From a totally purist point of view, someone might say, 'Well no, that's an oil and gas action.' But the whole reason we send them out there is to protect the wildlife," she said.
"I know that [The Washington Post] article left the impression that we are just sitting in the office [working on APDs]. There is a lot of administrative work that has to be done, but there is also a lot of ground work that has to be done and our three wildlife biologists are doing it." She also said there have been between 700 and 800 drilling site inspections by wildlife biologists in each of the last two years.
It isn't that BLM and the Bush administration are driving a drilling increase in Wyoming, she said. It's that the oil and gas industry is trying to respond to greater energy demand by going where supply can be found. "The headlines come out and say BLM is promoting drilling in this area, but we are certainly doing no such thing. We are responding to a request for development and following the laws requiring us to act on that request."
Gorny acknowledged that the Energy Policy Act of 2005 did direct the Interior department to implement better management practices to "ensure timely action" on drilling permits but she said that "does not supercede any of the other laws governing BLM.
"The country is trending toward needing more energy and we are trying to get away from less stable energy sources in foreign countries. Our actions are driven by industry making requests to access energy.
"You can only develop [natural gas] where you have it," she noted. "Would it be preferable to have energy deposits evenly spaced throughout the country? Absolutely. But I don't think you are going to find a lot of gas and oil fields in the middle of Iowa, and you are not going to find a lot of corn fields in the middle of Wyoming.
"We certainly are concerned about the wildlife declines, and that's why we are doing studies and working with partnerships with other organizations. That's why a whole new office for the Jonah field is being set up. We are serious about getting this done the right way."
Questar Executive Vice President Charles Stanley said he feels sorry for BLM because they've been given a "huge workload." And his company has been responsible for quite a lot of it. Questar holds about one third of the Pinedale acreage in the northern section of the area.
"They are understaffed," said Stanley. "They are running flat out. The media gravitates to the fact that there are all these new drilling permits being issued and there must be a vast conspiracy between the Bush administration and the BLM to drill the entire Rocky Mountain West. There is a total lack of acknowledgment of the paradigm shift that we are currently experiencing in the natural gas business away from historic conventional reservoirs...that didn't require a lot of wells to develop."
Stanley noted that many of the conventional reservoirs in the Gulf of Mexico, the Permian Basin of West Texas, and elsewhere are in rapid decline and the industry has been forced to turn to unconventional resources such as tight sands, shales and coalbed methane, which require much denser well spacing and as a result, significantly more drilling and permitting.
"Twenty years ago you thought of drilling...one well every square mile, but we are currently developing our Pinedale acreage on 10-acre density; that's 32 wells per square mile," he said. "And the Jonah field is currently being developed on a pilot basis at five-acre density which is 64 wells per square mile."
Meanwhile, the people at the BLM are following a permitting procedure that was designed for conventional wells. They are taking a look at each proposed well and conducting a painstaking analysis. That has increased the profile of development plans.
Stanley, however, disputes the conclusion that more drilling in Pinedale means a smaller wildlife population. He said drought rather than drilling has led to wildlife declines. "There has been a definite decrease in the population, but Wyoming and the Mountain West has been in a prolonged five-plus-year drought if you look at annual rainfall totals and snowpack. Range conditions have been tough for deer and anything that is dependant on the forage out there," he said. "These are the things that don't get talked about because it doesn't make a good story... We just hear deer in Pinedale are in decline." He also said that there is a direct correlation between drought and sage grouse population declines.
Furthermore, he said The Washington Post article and other recent reports overlook the significant environmental mitigation and wildlife conservation work that has been taking place in Wyoming, the Pinedale area in particular. He said Questar has been at the cutting edge of much of it, including spending an incremental $500,000 per well to do directional drilling from well pads to significantly minimize the drilling footprint. That alone has cost the company about $400 million and Questar has done that "voluntarily," he said.
Stanley said Questar also has spent $50 million to build a pipeline system to transport water and condensate out of the area, eliminating about 25,000 tanker truck visits, which significantly cuts down on emissions, noise and other impacts. In addition, it has spent $2-3 million per rig to install low-emissions diesel engines and has brought in technology to avoid flaring during well completion. These actions are rarely mentioned when drilling and wildlife are mentioned in the same story, he said.
For a copy of The Washington Post article, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/21/AR2006022101793.html.
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