Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal has asked the U.S. Forest Service to delay action on a proposed plan to allow oil and natural gas development in the Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF) of the Wyoming Range.

The Forest Service in December issued a proposed plan to allow 136 new gas wells to be drilled by Plains Exploration and Production Co. (PXP) along the South Rim Unit in a portion of the BTNF, which is part of the gas-rich Pinedale Field (see Daily GPI, Dec. 12, 2007). The proposal followed a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) issued earlier in 2007 by the BTNF, which was in response to a request from PXP to drill an exploratory gas well and possibly two additional wells on the same drill pad at its Eagle Prospect. PXP’s leases were originally bought in 1994, according to the Forest Service.

Freudenthal said in December he opposed the plan, and he again tried to make the state’s case last week, calling the proposal “monumental, far-reaching and fraught with controversy.” The governor, who sent the comments to District Ranger Greg Clark of the BTNF’ Big Piney Ranger District, outlined a long list of concerns related to wildlife, watershed health, water supplies, sensitive species, recreation, air quality and socioeconomics.

“Given the literally groundbreaking effort being considered and the importance of this area to hunters, anglers and the many others that hike, camp and make a living in the Wyoming Range, I would hope that the Forest Service would take not only the ‘hard look’ required by the National Environmental Policy Act, but an even more cautious approach,” Freudenthal wrote. The governor noted that he also voiced his concern about industrializing the Wyoming Range last year.

“That concern remains…and is only exacerbated by the knowledge that Stanley Energy [another energy company] has outlined a proposal to drill 200 wells from eight 50-acre well pads just south of the Plains [PXP] unit. In the likely event that natural gas is found by Plains, the set of dominoes I spoke of in my earlier letter will most assuredly topple — intensifying the impacts identified in this letter by many orders of magnitude,” he wrote. “It would seem prudent” to withhold action on PXP’s proposal until the Forest Service fully addresses the impact of development along the spine of the Wyoming Range and until federal legislation on the acreage is considered.

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso last year introduced a bill to protect more than 1.2 million acres of the range from future leasing (see Daily GPI, Oct. 29, 2007). The bill, which is pending in committee, would allow existing leases to be bought back and the land preserved.

Freudenthal also encouraged the Forest Service to carefully review the DEIS concerning 44,700 acres of contested leases in the Wyoming Range. The Forest Service is conducting a separate environmental study to consider leasing the additional acreage in the Wyoming Range.

Last Thursday was the deadline for public comments on the PXP plan. The Forest Service may propose a course of action by May, and it could make a final decision by early 2009.

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