Northwest of Rock Springs, a project proposed by Jonah Energy could tap 5.25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
The project is large by any measuring stick. Jonah could drill more than 3,000 wells rolled out over a 10-year period, potentially bringing $1.1 billion in revenue and 700 jobs to a vulnerable state economy, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
Last week, the BLM put out a draft environmental impact study on NPL, measuring how development would affect the area, including air quality and local wildlife. The agency is soliciting public comment and critique until Aug. 21 about four potential strategies moving forward as it edges toward a final draft and likely final approval of the proposal in some form.
But there are significant considerations for the NPL gas project in Sublette County. There always are in Wyoming.
The proposed project’s boundary surrounds the only known concentrated winter habitat for Wyoming’s sage grouse — an imperiled Western bird that two years ago was considered for an endangered species listing.
The project area also includes a portion of the bird’s breeding turf that the state and federal agencies have designated as crucial habitat, meaning added protections against development. And the proposed gas field lies in the middle of one of the longest migration corridors left in the U.S.: the Path of the Pronghorn.
“Right now we are at the proposal stage, and there is still time to make fundamental changes in the way the project is designed,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, who wants greater protections for wildlife before NPL moves forward.
For its part, Jonah Energy voluntarily suspended the project in 2015 to reconsider its impact on sage grouse and is using modern drilling techniques that mean fewer wells on the landscape. The feds, meanwhile, have proposed not allowing construction and drilling in the wintering habitat from December to March and staggering production.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the 3,000-well project, first suggested by Encana Corp. in 2011, lies where it does, adjacent to the two largest gas producing fields in Wyoming, Jonah and Pinedale. Its proponent, Jonah Energy, is the third-largest producer of natural gas in the state, dominating production in southwest Wyoming throughout the price downturn that decimated the state’s revenue streams.
The project was first put before the BLM when the spot price for natural gas was averaging more than $4. The price has bounced back and forth in the years since but has yet to return to the $10 or even $6 prices of years past.
Jonah says it can thrive despite moderate prices and bring a significant economic benefit to the county and the state. It has weathered the past years’ downturn by cutting costs, bartering price contracts and enhancing efficiencies.
While the prolific gas fields of southwest Wyoming are a unique benefit in the state, the area is also distinctive for its wildlife resources, particularly sage grouse and pronghorn. Sage grouse behavior and mating habitats have been studied extensively, but why and where the birds migrate in the coldest months of the year is not as well understood. The NPL project would share space with the only known winter range for the grouse.
For some the NPL project is risky simply because it is not clear how the wintering birds will respond to the well pads, roads and human activity that go along with a field of this size. They are notoriously finicky, and management plans focus on breeding habitat, not wintering grounds.
“Most of the big flocks that are seen in the winter occur in the area that is now slated to become the [Jonah Energy] project, which means that this is an area of really high value for winter habitat,” said Molvar, of Western Watersheds.
Given the concentration of birds in the region, a danger to this habitat is a danger to the entire population, most of which is in Wyoming, he said. The BLM has proposed drilling and construction limitations from January to March to protect the grouse, but Molvar believes that’s not enough.
“It really doesn’t matter that much when you do the construction and drilling... if you turn it into an industrialized landscape,” Molvar said. “If we start destroying the strongest (habitats) in Wyoming, the survival of the species as a whole becomes very tenuous indeed.”
Though pronghorn do not face the risk of an endangered species listing, some believe they are equally vulnerable to development in the area.
“There doesn’t seem to be any plan at all to provide protections for the pronghorn,” Molvar said. “That is really striking given the worldwide significance of this migration route.”
A recent study from the University of Wyoming showed portions of a mule deer herd that wintered on the Pinedale Anticline dropped by about 40 percent as the animals sought to avoid wells.
Molvar said the same could be true of pronghorn.
“We frankly don’t have a good understanding of where the threshold is,” Molvar said. “Those antelope might have to stop short. They may not be able to survive the winter as a result.”
A balancing act
Conservationists, industry groups and states scrambled to create management plans that staved off an endangered listing for the sage grouse just two years ago. How effective those plans are at conserving the grouse will take time to gauge as sage grouse populations cycle through highs and lows over decades.
But it’s in industry’s interest to drill with the bird’s conservation in mind, and companies like Jonah were involved in developing the management plans put in place by the federal agency and the state of Wyoming.
“We are always concerned about impact to wildlife and have looked for ways to reduce impact to all wildlife,” said Paul Ulrich, director of government affairs for Jonah Energy.
The company’s plan reduces road infrastructure, limits drilling locations by using directional wells — ones that shoot out horizontally beneath the surface — and decreases boots on the ground after drilling and completion.
The project will also be an opportunity to understand winter habitats and development, he said.
“We have a need for better science and better science will result in better management of those winter conservation areas,” he said.
For Brian Rutledge, director of the Rocky Mountain Region Audubon Society, the bird’s winter area is important, but in this case Jonah deserves credit for attempting to avoid damaging it, he said.
“They probably could have legally gone ahead and developed this (without mitigating for sage grouse),” Rutledge said. “Do we have to treat positively those things that are done positively? In my opinion, yes.”
Rutledge’s main concern is that Wyoming and the federal agency that oversees a major share of Wyoming land obey their own rules regarding industry development near or in sage grouse habitat. The rulebook was carved out to balance energy and conservation, and it should be followed, he said.
Large projects like NPL are being watched closely, as political changes have cast doubt on whether agencies will adhere to the federal and state management guidelines that limit energy development in some areas.
Ulrich, of Jonah Energy, said concern for wildlife is a significant part of developing the NPL project, with expertise offered by the BLM and other agencies.
“We believe when we have the [final decision] it’s going to have a strong suite of mitigation efforts for sage grouse, but certainly for pronghorn and other species,” Ulrich said.
Despite the magnitude of the NPL project, it’s an example of how drilling has changed in recent years, said Douglas Linn, assistant field manager of minerals and lands at the Pinedale BLM office.
From cutting drilling time by as much as three-fourths to reduced emissions from rigs, the way companies approach a field has changed, he said.
“The overall disturbance is very different than the total scale of the project area,” he said of NPL. “That reflects the way development has improved over the years.”
Though it spans 141,000 acres, NPL’s short-term surface disturbance will be a fraction of that — closer to 6,000 acres, he said.
At this stage of the project, there are four potential avenues laid out by the BLM. In the BLM’s preferred route, the project is broken into three distinct areas, with different degrees of activity depending on the environmental impacts and the availability of the gas resources in each area. The northwest section of the project would have the least development given the concentration of wildlife and environmental concerns.
As NPL is considered, it’s important to note that the specific placement of roads, of drilling pads and wells will come later in the development phase, Linn said.
What’s happening now is a bird’s-eye view of the project.
“An (approved) project of this scale doesn’t authorize anything,” he said. “It gives the analysis framework to do authorizations as they come in, whether it is an individual drilling permit or a right of way.”