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Powder River Drilling Halted for Elk Habitat Review

Coalbed methane (CBM) drilling operations in the Fortification Creek area of the Powder River Basin west of Gillette, WY, have been halted to allow the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) time to review how natural gas development may impact a prized elk herd inhabiting the region. Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and Williams both are working on CBM projects in the area.

BLM Wyoming Director Don Simpson last week sided with environmental groups in ordering the BLM Buffalo Field Office to analyze drilling operations in that portion of the Powder River Basin. About 260 elk inhabit the Fortification Creek area after being reintroduced to the region beginning in the 1950s.

The Powder River Basin Resource Council, Wyoming Wildlife Federation, Wyoming Outdoor Council, the National Wildlife Federation and an area landowner appealed an environmental assessment of the area, which was issued in July by the Buffalo office. The BLM office said drilling would cause "no significant impact" to the elk herd.

The primary issue for the elk herd is that the environmental assessment completed in July did not properly disclose impacts to elk herds in the way that the National Environmental Policy Act requires, said Buffalo Field Office Manager Duane Spencer.

"For the most part, the protests the state director reviews have been built around how we documented our decision and what we did in those documents," Spencer said. The BLM review may lead to some operational changes, but drilling is expected to continue until after the field office completes the environmental assessment, a process that could be completed by the end of the month.

In 2008 the BLM Buffalo Field Office, which oversees most of the Powder River Basin, began to revise its then 23-year-old resource management plan, and until the four-year process is completed, energy permits were to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis (see NGI, Aug. 18, 2008).

Anadarko already has completed about half of 134 CBM wells planned for the Fortification Creek area. The Houston-based producer ceased operations in mid-November when a big-game winter game closure took effect. Williams, which is drilling just outside the big game closure area in Fortification Creek, has permits to drill 80 wells in the area.

"We are hopeful that further analysis will lead BLM to require greater levels of environmental protection in this area, particularly for the entire elk yearlong habitat," said Wyoming Outdoor Council Program Director Bruce Pendery.

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