Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal has asked federal officials to suspend energy leases issued in the Wyoming Range and offer a refund to the producers that were planning to drill there.

In a letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, the governor said the area in western Wyoming is important to the state and should be protected. Kempthorne, who oversees the Bureau of Land Management, and Johanns, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, were asked to cancel leases already issued in a 44,600-acre area and reimburse companies for the money they spent to obtain the leases. A federal appeals court already has halted leasing in the area pending a further environmental review, and no new active energy development is yet under way.

To not cancel the leases "would seem to controvert the clear intent of the proposed legislation and will of the people of the state of Wyoming," Freudenthal said in a letter dated Sept. 20.

Freudenthal, a Democrat, referenced pending legislation by Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican he appointed to take over for Sen. Craig Thomas, who died of leukemia in June. Thomas, also a Republican, had announced plans to introduce legislation to protect the Wyoming Range in May (see NGI, June 4), and Barrasso has publicly stated that he will move forward with the legislation. Barrasso will face an opponent in next year's special election.

"He started it, and I think we should finish it out," Freudenthal said of Thomas' desire to protect the range.

Because of its proximity to the natural gas fields of the Upper Green River Basin, the Wyoming Range, which is near the Bridger-Teton National Forest, has become a focus for expanded oil and gas leasing. There now are more than 100,000 acres leased for energy development, and another 44,600 acres were made available for leasing along the eastern edge of the range in 2005 and 2006.

Despite a protest by Freudenthal in early 2006 to protect the Wyoming Range (see NGI, April 3, 2006), leases on 10 parcels in the Bridger-Teton National Forest sold last year for $905,852 (see NGI, Aug. 14, 2006).

Barrasso said he supports "multiple-use of public lands," but "there are some areas that are so special they need to be protected for future generations. The Wyoming Range is such an area." If his bill mirrors Thomas' proposal, the legislation would include lease buy-backs and retirements; suspension of further leasing and protect existing oil and gas leasing rights.

"To be successful, each of us -- Congress, the administration, sportsmen and conservation groups, and the lessees need to stay at the table," Barrasso said. "To deal with the leases on the undeveloped acres of the Wyoming range will require creative solutions."

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