People attending public meetings will learn more to sort truth from fiction regarding a proposal to drill for natural gas in the Noble Basin near Bondurant, those close to the issue said last week.

The Bridger-Teton National Forest is hosting three public meetings this week in Jackson, Bondurant and Pinedale to better educate the public and listen to comments on a proposal Plains Exploration and Production, based in Houston, has submitted.

The proposal includes drilling 136 wells from 17 pads in the Wyoming Range in an area south of Bondurant. The meetings will be an open house format.

Gary Amerine, vice president of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association, said he hopes through the information process, "A lot of the issues that have been bounced back and forth in the last month or so are eliminated."

"There's a definite lack of knowledge by a lot of people on this process that's going on," Amerine said.

Dan Smitherman with Citizens for the Wyoming Range, echoed the sentiment that the public needs to learn more about the process and the proposal.

"The (Draft Environmental Impact Statement) that is out there right now is flawed," he said, referring to the DEIS the Forest Service completed addressing PXP's proposal. "The best thing is for the Forest Service to listen to public comments, and pull it back to issue a supplemental (study). That's what they need to do to address the weaknesses."

The two groups disagree on the strengths and weaknesses of the Forest Service's document, which is out for public review through March 11. But both agree the public meetings will give people an opportunity to learn more, and hear all sides of the issue.

One particular source for scrutiny comes from the agreement drafted by PXP and the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association and Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. That agreement, in which PXP said it was willing to relinquish its drilling rights on 28,000 acres and would engage in No Surface Occupancy stipulations, among other concessions for permission to drill, was drafted in December.

It is, however, simply one public comment that will be submitted to the Forest Service. Amerine, who helped craft the agreement, said people are putting that agreement as an equal to the DEIS.

"The DEIS is the most important," he said. "By far and away."

The Forest Service will ultimately dictate through the final EIS what PXP can do on its leased acreage. But, Amerine said, if the Forest Service chooses the preferred alternative as it is written in the DEIS, the agreement is a legally binding document that can help the public know what PXP is willing to do to exercise its drilling rights in the area.

Smitherman agreed the agreement was, at the end of the day, one comment to the Forest Service.

"It's a start, the retirement of the lease (area) is a good thing, but we are essentially business as usual," he said.

Still, Smitherman said the DEIS is flawed, and the public needs to let the Forest Service know.

For example, the agency says it will conduct on-sight monitoring of water and air quality, but there has been no baseline established.

"You need to know where to start," he said. Monitoring in the Jonah and Anticline fields south of Pinedale also struggled with ongoing monitoring, as a baseline was not concretely established before drilling took off in the area, he added.

Wildlife species like moose, elk and lynx, and their habitat, also need to be monitored before drilling begins, to establish a baseline, he said.

Representatives from the Petroleum Association of Wyoming were at the legislative session in Cheyenne and unavailable for comment.

PXP's proposal, which gave rise to the current DEIS, started nearly a decade ago when the Houston company submitted a proposal to drill three exploratory wells on 4.5 acres in the area of Hoback Ranches to determine the feasibility of a larger development. The Forest Service released a DEIS for that proposal, and was inundated with some 19,000 comments, mostly opposed.

The public said, in part, it did not want to give approval without knowing the company's plans should a viable energy source be found.

PXP then pulled that preliminary proposal in late 2007 and submitted the more detailed proposal on the table now.

At the time, then-Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, said he was pleased that the company had responded to public comments expressing concern.

"I remain opposed to their efforts to develop in the Wyoming Range," Freudenthal said in 2007.

Recently, Freudenthal called the agreement between PXP and the outfitters' groups a "good first step."

Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, has said he needs more time to review the proposal before commenting.

The current proposal has to go through this early DEIS process, then will be re-examined in an EIS. The entire timeline is yet unclear.

Proposed plans call for the construction of access roads, gas and produced liquid gathering lines, and associated facilities needed for production operations.

The area is controversial as much of the acreage was protected last year under the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, spearheaded by the late U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo. PXP and other companies have grandfathered lease rights in the area.

"We're a long ways away from Plains starting this development," Amerine said. "There's a lot of road ahead of us."

If you go

Public meetings

Tuesday: Jackson, Snow King Resort, 7 to 9 p.m.

Wednesday: Bondurant, Bondurant School Auditorium, 7 to 9 p.m.

Thursday: Pinedale, Pinedale Library, 7 to 9 p.m.

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