Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal is stepping into another energy development controversy in his state, this time taking to task a small exploratory natural gas drilling project planned by Devon Energy Corp.

The governor, who is working to prevent extensive energy development of the Wyoming Range (see related story), said in a letter to the Rock Springs, WY, office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that he did not think the Sweetwater County area was the place for a small project that could turn into a large-scale development.

Devon has requested permission from BLM to drill two exploratory gas wells in the Little Mountain area in what it calls its Baxter Natural Gas Proposal.

"As Devon states in their project brochure, their aim is to 'test the feasibility of natural gas production and determine the extent of recoverable hydrocarbons underlying the company's leases within the project area,'" Freudenthal wrote. "Considering the Baxter shale formation and its similarity to the Vermillion Basin, the pressure to expand from two wells seems inevitable, especially since Devon owns the bulk of the leases in the general area.

"If these wells are successful, the Wyoming State Geological Survey has advised me that 'a gas resource play and associated field(s) will result on the southwestern flank of the Rock Springs Uplift that will be characterized by closely spaced wells at 10- or even 5-acre spacing.' I do not want the Baxter project to trigger the full industrialization of an irreplaceable recreational area and fragile ecosystem."

Freudenthal added, "If my hesitation about the Baxter proposal were limited to the possibility of it serving as a beachhead for a large production unit, then perhaps a combination of aggressive stipulations and mitigation measures could partly address my concerns." The drilling proposal will require an environmental impact statement, he said, urging the BLM to "carefully weigh whether the impacts associated with energy activity around Little Mountain would be manageable."

The "remarkable area is so near to Rock Springs and Green River, not to mention Flaming Gorge Reservoir," which "makes it a uniquely important place to residents of Sweetwater County, as well as to the rest of the state and the region," Freudenthal said. He also questioned the potential impact on habitat for the greater sage grouse and the pygmy rabbit, as well as the "serious implications" for future land use decisions.

"Every action that could potentially affect sage grouse in this state, including the Baxter Proposal, is going to be viewed under the microscope of the Endangered Species Act. I want to be sure that we do not put our future ability to make land use decisions at risk."

According to the governor, the area since 1990 has benefited from $1.44 million in ecosystem restoration projects funded by both private entities and state and federal agencies, including the BLM. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department, he said, has spent at least $351,000.

"Since wildfires have burned approximately 80,000 acres in the Little Mountain ecosystem within the last seven years, we are still at a critical moment in terms of preventing invasive plant species, such as cheat grass, from taking hold and spreading."

The governor noted that "any energy development, whether limited or broad, in the Little Mountain area is going to stir up a perfect storm of wildlife, environmental, recreational and social issues. The Baxter proposal has already evoked strong reactions from locals, including blue collar workers, hunters and the Association of Churches."

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