Federal and Wyoming officials are not ready to sign off on a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plan to allow more natural gas wells to be drilled in the growing Pinedale Anticline area.

In comments to BLM, both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) said a draft supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS), which would allow substantially more gas wells to be drilled in the Pinedale area, needs stronger air restrictions and more protections for wildlife before it is approved.

The SEIS, which was issued by BLM's Wyoming office in December (see Daily GPI, Dec. 19, 2006), is in response to a proposal submitted by Questar Exploration and Production, Shell Exploration and Production and Ultra Resources to conduct year-round drilling of exploratory and development wells on their leases within existing gas fields in Sublette County, WY. The original drilling plan in 2000 authorized 700 wells. The supplemental document offers several alternatives, with one allowing up to 4,399 more wells on 12,278 new acres of disturbance. BLM also offers a "no action" alternative.

BLM's preferred alternative would allow more drilling, but it offers some seasonal stipulations to protect wintering wildlife. It also calls for development on a 19-square-mile area, which it said would allow for more reclamation more quickly, with drilling completed within 40 years rather than 60 years or longer. The Pinedale project area, which covers 198,034 acres of federal, state and private land, contains an estimated 21 Tcf of gas reserves, according to the BLM. An estimated 500 wells were drilled in the Pinedale Anticline area at year-end 2005, the agency said.

In a 19-page letter to BLM Wyoming State Director Bob Bennett, EPA Regional Administrator Robert Roberts said his agency is concerned about whether enough alternatives were analyzed. He also noted concerns about air quality and possible harm to wildlife if increased drilling is allowed. EPA rated the SEIS as "EO-2," which means it has environmental objections, and the document is insufficient and needs supplemental analysis.

DEQ Director John Corra said in comments to BLM that more requirements and stricter timetables are needed to adequately protect the region's air quality. DEQ wants BLM to require operators to develop 10-year "rolling forecasts" or development plans to annually review air quality impacts.

DEQ said the SEIS could be strengthened if, within one year of the final decision, gas operators adopted air emission strategies that "would reduce predicted visibility impacts to 2005 predicted levels." The stricter limits "would provide an almost immediate reduction of predicted visibility impacts from current development."

DEQ also recommended that BLM require Questar, Shell and Ultra to accelerate their proposed emission reduction scenario, with drill rig emissions reduced by 80% within three years instead of the proposed five. In addition, it wants operators to submit a plan within five years that addresses all sources of air emissions from project activities, with a goal to have zero days of visibility impairment. Within six years, operators would develop a plan that would minimize harm to wildlife, but would also be "technically and economically practical."

The public comment period on the SEIS has been extended to June 18. Comments may be submitted via the website by clicking here. To submit comments by mail, contact Kellie Roadifer, Planning & Environmental Coordinator, BLM, Pinedale Field Office, P.O. Box 768, Pinedale, WY 82941.

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