Up to 3,100 new gas wells will be allowed under a new infill drilling plan approved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for the Jonah Field in Sublette County, WY. Operators, led by EnCana Corp., estimate that the energy project could provide 8 Tcf of additional natural gas production.
However, the sharp increase in drilling will have a significant negative impact on wildlife and a potential impact on air quality. BLM studies show that there probably will be a complete displacement of the existing sage grouse population as well as significant impacts on pronghorn antelope. While BLM concluded there most likely would not be any long-term impacts on the two species due to the small size of the affected area in relation to the overall habitat availability in the region, the Jonah infill drilling decision will include a compensatory mitigation plan with $24.5 million in funding from EnCana Oil and Gas for a new interagency monitoring and mitigation office.
The Jonah Interagency Monitoring and Mitigation Office (JIO), staffed by BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the state of Wyoming and the oil and gas development companies, will measure surface disturbance and reclamation efforts to provide timely information to determine impacts on the environment and wildlife within the project area. It also will identify and fund habitat improvement projects in nearby areas to offset impacts within the Jonah field and the temporary impacts to wildlife habitat associated with oil and gas development.
"The companies, Wyoming and BLM and state and local agencies have tried their best to strike a balance in maximizing the extraction and minimizing the impacts," said Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal. "The result we see at the end of the plan, and not the plan itself, will be the measure of success. Frankly, I think that all parties want to see this work and work well."
The decision, nevertheless, did not sit well with local environmental groups. "As Governor Freudenthal says, the result we see at the end of the plan and not the plan itself will be the measure of success. Unfortunately we are dubious about the ultimate consequences of the Jonah Infill based on the BLM's track record in the Upper Green [River Valley]," said Linda Baker, an environmental activist with the Upper Green River Valley Coalition and chair of the Pinedale Anticline Working Group, an advisory group to BLM.
"Time and time again we have seen BLM underestimate natural gas development's impacts, such as their prediction of NOx [nitrogen oxide] emissions levels on the Pinedale Anticline," said Baker. "Frankly we are skeptical about how effective this plan is going to be at protecting the values we treasure.
"Efforts like EnCana's to improve their practices, including experimental natural gas-powered rigs, should not be voluntary, but required. Best practices should be considered a part of doing business in the Upper Green, and are more than affordable in today's lucrative natural gas market," she added. "The BLM is responsible for protecting our air, and in this plan they have fallen short of living up to that responsibility by not requiring the best available technology."
Baker said local residents are alarmed about the effects of the Jonah Infill project on air quality, and the BLM's plan fails to address this concern because all of the options in the plan for minimizing the negative effects on air quality are only suggestions rather than requirements.
BLM clearly favors incentives and suggestions over mandates. For example, the plan provides "incentives" for industry to minimize the amount of land disturbed by development and "encourages" timely reclamation of short-term disturbances, such as from construction of temporary roads or pipelines. However, the decision does set a limit on the amount of total surface disturbance at any given time to 46% (14,030 acres) of the field (30,500 acres). Reclaimed acreage will be credited toward available surface disturbance limits, up to a maximum cumulative surface disturbance of 20,300 acres.
"The preferred alternative for the Jonah Infill Drilling Project provides a crucial domestic source of natural gas while minimizing the impacts of development," said BLM Wyoming State Director Bob Bennett.
The project is expected to generate more than $6 billion in royalties to be shared between the federal treasury and the state of Wyoming. The total economic activity expected to be generated from natural gas and oil development will be $30.5 billion during the life of the project.
Mike Stiewig, JIO project office manager, said the interagency group would be working in the coming weeks to identify and prioritize off-site mitigation projects. "We look forward to finding those solutions in partnership with the local community and local governments," he said.
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