The U.S. Forest Service is considering a plan to allow 136 new natural gas wells to be drilled in Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming -- a plan that Gov. Dave Freudenthal opposes.

The plan, which was published last week in the Federal Register, proposes to allow exploratory drilling by Plains Exploration and Production Co. (PXP) within the South Rim Unit on the Big Piney Ranger District, which is located in the gas-rich Pinedale Field of Wyoming (72 Federal Register, No. 236, 69654-69647).

The Bridger-Teton National Forest issued a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) in February in response to a request from PXP to drill an exploratory well, as well as two additional wells on the same drill pad at its Eagle Prospect, "should the initial well be productive."

However, after the DEIS was reviewed, PXP decided to incorporate a "Master Development Plan" (MDP) into its original exploratory proposal to provide a "potential development scenario" that would allow for "planned, anticipated and potential development facilities" if the company wanted to drill more wells.

According to the Forest Service, if the MDP were approved and developed, it "would potentially involve 136 wells from 17 well pads, construction of 15 miles of new nonsystem roads and reconstruction or realignment of 14 miles of existing system roads on National Forest System lands."

About 400 acres of potential new surface disturbance from roads, well pads, gathering lines and produced liquids buried adjacent to the roads would occur, according to the Forest Service. "The total potential disturbance represents about one well pad per section and a 40-acre spacing for well bottomhole locations."

The Forest Service now needs to make a decision regarding the MDP including necessary access and related facilities associated with PXP's lease rights. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Wyoming office, as a cooperating agency, also will have to approve the MDP and associated applications for permits to drill, the Forest Service noted.

The state of Wyoming also is a cooperating agency in the decision, but the governor already has indicated his displeasure with the decision to move forward.

"I remain opposed to the development, and frankly, I'm perplexed that the Forest Service has turned a deaf ear to both the state and the community's concerns," Freudenthal told Wyoming's Jackson Hole Daily.

Besides the governor, officials with the Wyoming tourism department and officials with the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce also oppose the project, the newspaper noted. "Freudenthal said the project could become a 'Jonah in the woods,' referring to the densely developed natural gas field in southern Sublette County" in Wyoming, according to the newspaper. Freudenthal in October asked federal officials to suspend energy leases issued in the Wyoming Range, which is near the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and offer a refund to the producers that were planning to drill there (see NGI, Oct. 22).

Because of its proximity to the gas fields of the Upper Green River Basin, the Wyoming Range has become a focus for oil and gas leasing. There now are more than 100,000 acres leased for energy development in the Wyoming Range, 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 last year sold for $905,852 (see NGI, Aug. 14, 2006).

The Forest Service plans to issue more details on PXP's MDP and seek comments on Wednesday (Dec. 19). Ongoing information related to the proposed action and related analysis will be posted on the Bridger-Teton National Forest website at www.fs.fed.us/r4/btnf.

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