About a year ago, the very rare happened. The Forest Service came to an agreement with several different outdoors groups on a compromise plan for the Bridger-Teton National Forest that would seem to satisfy the service, outdoors folks and Plains Exploration and Production, a natural gas drilling company which holds leases on forest land.
The deal was brokered without the threat of a lawsuit and seemed to demonstrate a different model of compromise was possible in Wyoming without everyone winding up in a courtroom.
That deal, though, fell apart. While the deal’s disintegration may prove to be fortunate for Wyoming’s long-term interest, the idea of different groups getting together for a compromise is not something that should be dismissed or forgotten.
Now, as the Bridger-Teton National Forest conducts a supplemental environmental study, it’s probably time to address a couple of key points that could get overshadowed in the politics and semantics of these incredibly detailed reports.
No matter what the fate of gas exploration in the forest may be, the Forest Service needs to hold up its end of the agreement, which was brokered in 1991. In other words, the stipulations for gas exploration and well drilling in Bridger-Teton have been in place and well established for more than 20 years. What many groups and landowners there have advocated is simply that the Forest Service follow its own well-reasoned rules. We’d ask for the same.
We believe these rules spell out guidelines that protect what may be some of the most valuable natural resources in the state, not only in terms of scenic beauty, but in terms of wildlife preservation. This is land that is both sensitive and popular. Tourism in this area is also a natural resource, one that is renewable.
With natural gas prices plummeting, it makes sense that PXP would want to waive some of the rules or modify others. Gas exploration isn’t cheap, and the market is incredibly speculative. With current prices, getting at gas cheaply is the only way to make money. But that may not be in the best long-term interest of Wyoming, or Bridger-Teton.
When the original leases were put out, even the Forest Service cautioned prospective bidders that, “Access into the Upper Hoback Area and the Bare Hole is impossible because of steep slopes, large unstable soils areas, and administrative NSO along the Upper Hoback River. Exploration by helicopter would be possible but the roads and pipelines necessary for production would not be possible.”
Waiving well-established rules that protect critical public lands shouldn’t be considered for such a sensitive area, where getting to the gas is so restrictive.
Instead, as the Forest Service evaluates the PXP plan, it should also remember that much has changed since 1991.
For example, we know from the Pavillion case that water supplies must be monitored carefully in the midst of oil and gas extraction. Even more importantly, the water supplies must be well understood before drilling. In that spirit, we believe the Forest Service must require a ground water characterization study before gas exploration can begin so that water supplies in this area are protected.
Since 1991, Sublette County has been plagued by ozone problems. Any new wells put in this area would contribute to a serious health problem that’s now been well-established. Residents in Sublette and Teton counties must understand how potential wells would not make the ozone problem much worse.
Though PXP has offered to mitigate wildlife concerns offsite, the area is already home to sensitive mule deer and moose population. Setting aside land offsite won’t necessarily help these species, which are critical to Wyoming’s outdoors. More research might be needed in order to make sure these herds are adequately protected.
It’s important to point out: There aren’t many — if any — groups saying that gas exploration shouldn’t happen. The leases in Bridger-Teton are legitimate. But, by the lease’s language, the gas is hard — even impossible — to come by.
We also support gas exploration and energy in Wyoming. It just needs to happen in a transparent way that follows the rules that were established for a good reason.