On the heels of a report that the Bureau of Land Management failed to inspect more than 2,000 oil and natural gas wells over a three-year period, the BLM formally announced Friday that it will study the environmental impacts of expanding development in Converse County.
The bureau said that up to 5,000 oil and gas wells could be drilled there in the next decade.
Federal regulators failed to inspect the wells on public lands over a three-year period, the Government Accountability Office reported this week, in a reflection of rising energy production across the United States.
Those projections, coupled with the GAO's findings, sparked a debate between environmentalists and industry advocates over the best way to permit and oversee energy production on federal land.
Environmentalists said the report speaks to the need for updated regulations, which have lagged behind rapid technological advancements in the industry. Oil and gas interests said it shows the need for eliminating redundancy in the permitting of federal wells.
BLM officials acknowledged the need for improved oversight. The GAO report found that between 2009 and 2012, the bureau had not inspected 2,100 of 3,702 "high priority" wells, or those where the possibility of water contamination or risks to environmental safety are highest.
The BLM is also missing information on 1,784 wells that would identify them as either high or low priorities.
"The safe and environmentally sound operation of oil and gas activities on the nation’s public lands is a high priority for the Bureau of Land Management, and we welcome the analysis of the GAO as part of that effort," BLM spokesman Jeff Krauss said in a prepared statement.
"While federal onshore oil production is the highest it has been in a decade and has risen for the fourth year in a row, the BLM continues to improve oversight of energy development on public lands, and this report provides recommendations to do that."
The GAO report did not provide a state-by-state breakout of where the uninspected wells were located. Krauss said the BLM is now compiling that information, which will be released later.
But the report has potentially far-reaching implications in Wyoming. On federal land, 4,561 wells were drilled in the Cowboy State between 2009 and 2012, according to BLM statistics, more than in any other state in the country during that time.
"The lack of oversight we see with BLM here is one of the symptoms of the rules and regulations not being up to speed with the technology," said Amber Wilson, environmental quality coordinator at the Wyoming Outdoor Council.
The bureau may benefit from more resources to help it conduct inspections, she said.
Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, an industry group, said the report shows that the BLM should be dedicating its resources to conduct inspections, not permit wells. Wells on federal land currently must receive state and federal permits.
"What really spoke to me from the report was that BLM should be delegating more to the states so it can reduce redundancy and focus more on getting out into the field to protect public land and natural resources," Sgamma said.
BLM officials had previously discussed plans to study rising development in Converse County. Friday's announcement represented the opening of an initial public comment period, with the bureau accepting public remarks on the scope of the study.
The BLM will hold meetings on the subject in Casper, Douglas and Glenrock in the next month. Dates have yet to be announced.
The analysis will encompass approximately 1.5 million acres.
The projection of 5,000 new wells was submitted jointly to the bureau by Anadarko Petroleum, Chesapeake Energy, RKI Exploration and Production, Samson Resources and SM Energy, said Joe Meyer, acting director of the BLM's High Plains field office.
The bureau treats the companies' collective projects as one in order to be better measure the cumulative impacts of development in the region, Meyer said.