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Sage Grouse Concerns to Limit Powder River Drilling

August 18, 2008
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The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Buffalo Field Office in Wyoming, which oversees most of the Powder River Basin (PRB), is overhauling its 23-year-old resource management plan (RMP) and until the four-year process is completed, energy permits will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis and only one well pad per 640 acres -- or about a mile -- will be allowed, officials said last week.

BLM Buffalo field manager Chris Hanson explained the revision process during a conference call Wednesday. Some exceptions may be allowed -- but wildlife and recreational needs will be a top priority.

"We're not limiting oil and gas development," said Hanson. "What we're saying is, we're setting the bar a little bit higher in these areas. At this point, we'll review all of the proposals on a case-by-case basis, and we'll rely on industry to demonstrate to us that their projects are consistent with well density not to exceed 640 acres. Where industry wants to defer development now, we'll entertain lease suspension requests too.

"We have challenges of both meeting the state's energy needs and being good habitat managers in the Powder River Basin. The key issue is the balance of wildlife resources at this point, in light of the emerging sage grouse issue. We are trying to strive for a healthy sage grouse population out there, and in coordination with the Game and Fish Department, we also recognize that we have very viable, active energy development in the Powder River Basin."

Since BLM approved the original RMP record of decision in 1985 and subsequent environmental assessment in 2003, the PRB has undergone a huge amount of growth in gas development, noted Hanson. At the same time, concerns about the loss of sage grouse habitat has concerned officials across the West.

Earlier this month Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal issued an executive order outlining a plan to protect the game bird, which had been done with some BLM coordination (see NGI, Aug. 11; June 23). Wyoming's plan carried no official weight with federal rulings, but Hanson said his office also wanted to ensure protection of the sage grouse and to accommodate energy development.

BLM previously had planned to only amend the Buffalo RMP to address sage grouse habitat management. However, the amendment likely would have been followed by a call to implement a revision to the RMP, and thus BLM dropped that idea to focus on revisions to the overall document. While the amendment would have taken less than a year to prepare, revisions to the RMP will take up to four years, said Hanson.

In the interim, less energy development may be done in some areas of the "core" sage grouse habitat areas outlined by Freudenthal, he said. The Buffalo office froze some permit applications in May, but that freeze has since been lifted.

"We will be processing all of the permits we have in the Buffalo office" on a case-by-case basis, he said. "We had held up a number of permits to analyze the issue in May, but now we are moving forward and processing all of the permits." If an energy company can demonstrate that it can protect sage grouse habitat, it would be given a waiver to add more well pads than the restricted one per 640 acres, he said.

The PRB restrictions would be on a "temporary basis" only and focus on "areas of concern expressed through the media and by the public" in the past year, Hanson emphasized.

"We have challenges of both meeting our energy needs and being good habitat managers in the Powder River Basin," Hanson said. "The 2003 EIS [environmental impact statement]...provided the basis for the decisions that we will continue to use and implement as we move forward. We've spent the last couple of months gathering and analyzing information from a variety of stakeholders, and we've identified areas within the Powder River Basin that we believe can be looked at as sage grouse focus areas.

"We want to be able to identify those areas as well as a path to move forward to process permits out there," Hanson said. He emphasized that even though the interim rules would affect oil and gas development, "our actions out there apply to more than just coalbed methane management, but also to solid minerals, habitat, recreational [issues] and realty."

Even with the restrictions, permitting will continue on a fast pace, Hanson said (see related story). BLM's Buffalo office in 2007 processed around 3,000 energy permits. This year the office is expected to process 2,000-3,000, and "at least 2,000 [a year] during the plan revision," he said.

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