Despite the concern on Capital Hill over energy prices, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last Wednesday voted out a measure (S. 2229) that places more than 1.2 million acres of the Wyoming Range out of bounds to future oil and natural gas leasing.

The legislation, the “Wyoming Range Legacy Act of 2008,” was one of 45 land and water measures approved by the Senate panel. One of the few Republican committee members to back the measure was Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), the bill’s sponsor. The bulk of the support came from the panel’s Democrats, with the exception of Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.

The full Senate is expected to take up the measure this summer, with House action to follow.

In defending his legislation to close off certain lands, Barrasso told reporters that “the people of Wyoming have clearly done their part” with respect to oil and gas production. He noted that Wyoming is the national leader in terms of onshore energy production. As for natural gas production, it ranks No. 2, he said.

Barrasso stressed that the legislation would not shut down current production, which includes the prolific Jonah gas field, nor does it address about 44,000 acres of contested leases in the area.

Barrasso was hand picked by Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal to complete the term of Sen. Craig Thomas (R-WY), who had planned to introduce similar legislation but who died of leukemia in June.

“It’s amazing in this price environment that any areas in the U.S. [are placed] off limits to production,” said Marc Smith, executive director of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States. “Legislation like this receives a raucous cheer from environmentalists,” he said, but he noted that it’s hurtful to the consumer.

Under S. 2229, which was introduced in October 2007, no additional mining patents and no additional geothermal or mineral leasing would be allowed within about 100 miles of the range, which is located in western Wyoming, extending 50 miles from the Hoback Canyon south of Jackson to Big Piney. Rising higher than 11,000 feet, the range runs its course between the Greys and Green rivers, separating Lincoln and Sublette counties — where much of the state’s gas production is taking place (see NGI, Oct. 29, 2007).

Barrasso’s legislation, which is cosponsored by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), would allow conservationists and sportsmen to buy back and retire leases from energy companies that are willing to sell them.

The measure calls for leaseholders to submit a written request to the Department of Interior (DOI) for the retirement and repurchase of the lease. The lease purchase price would be “based on fair market value, as determined from an appraisal that is agreed to by the secretary and the lessee.” The DOI may not use nonfederal funds to purchase the leases. States, private groups and others also would be allowed to purchase the leases for conservation purposes, or the leases may be donated back to the state by the leaseholder.

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