A coalition of environmentalists and landowners is calling on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to rewrite its proposed management plan for federal lands around Buffalo, arguing that the current draft would roll back protections aimed at preventing oil and gas development on areas unsuitable for drilling.
BLM officials defended their proposal. The draft Buffalo Resource Management Plan, which will govern 780,000 acres of BLM surface land and 4.8 million acres of federal minerals, clarifies past ambiguities about where companies are allowed to drill and will mean more consistent management in the region, they said.
Industry officials, meanwhile, welcomed the move, saying it provided companies flexibility while also ensuring conservation goals are met.
The debate highlighted the rising stakes in the Powder River Basin, where oil development is now increasing.
The BLM projects that 1,773 wells will be drilled in coming decades throughout the western reaches of the basin covered under the Buffalo plan. An additional 2,721 coal-bed methane wells are expected to be drilled in the area.
Under the 1984 plan governing the Buffalo region, development was prohibited on slopes greater than 25 percent. It was restricted in areas susceptible to erosion and locations where reclamation efforts were deemed unlikely to succeed.
The draft plan would allow companies to drill in those areas provided they produce site-specific plans saying how they intend to mitigate environmental concerns.
"It can really hurt private landowners who have federal minerals beneath them," said Jill Morrison, an organizer at the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a Sheridan-based landowner's group. "The reason those stipulations were put in place originally was to protect those fragile landscapes and those areas that really can’t be reclaimed."
The Powder River Basin Resource Council, the Natural Resource Defense Council, the Sierra Club Law Program and the Western Environmental Law Center wrote a June 19 letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and BLM Director Neil Kornze calling for a "do-over" of the Buffalo plan.
In addition to rolling back restrictions on oil and gas, the plan allows additional acreage to be allowed for coal leasing and will lead to an increase in the greenhouse gases responsible for global climate change, they said.
But BLM officials said their proposal actually increases environmental protections, adding stipulations to conserve reptiles, bats, fish and sage grouse, while providing more consistency in their oil and gas leasing rules.
Under the old plan, a company could receive a waiver from the Buffalo office supervisor to drill on a slope greater than 25 percent, despite the nominal prohibition on drilling in those areas. However, there were no rules on when the office supervisor was allowed to grant that waiver, they said.
"The exception really isn’t an exception anymore when it was the common thing to do," said Buffalo field office supervisor Duane Spencer.
The draft plan will ask operators to submit plans to stabilize and reclaim the area.
"The whole idea what we are doing with this new plan is tell a project proponent what they have to do up front," said Thomas Bills, the Buffalo field office's environmental coordinator. "We thought the old plan was pretty vague, so we are trying to be clear about what is required and how to go about it."
The draft plan was released for public comment last year. It is expected to be finalized late this year or early next year.
In written comments submitted to the BLM, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, an industry group, supported the stipulation changes called for in Alternative D, the federal agency's preferred option among the four alternatives it laid out.
The association said it supports flexible approaches to soil management in high-erosion areas, on steep slopes and in areas where reclamation is difficult.
The oil and gas industry has worked with a wide range of consultants and academics in an effort to improve reclamation efforts, the association wrote in its comments.
"With constant improvements and innovations taking place, a (Resource Management Plan) needs to recognize the value of such efforts and, as in Alternative D, support flexibility to achieve the desired results," the association said in a release.