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Converse County oil and gas project is an opportunity of incredible scope, with challenges to match

Converse County oil and gas project is an opportunity of incredible scope, with challenges to match

Jonah Field

Jonah Energy inspector Cesar Diaz walks through a natural gas well site in 2014 in the Jonah Field south of Pinedale. A massive oil and gas project in Converse County could bring an estimated 8,000 jobs, along with concerns over air quality and water. 

About 100 ranch trucks and industrial vehicles hauling equipment to the oil fields pass through a remote crossroads in Converse County each day.

In about a decade that number could jump by 1,800 percent.

One of the largest developments Wyoming has ever seen could be coming to this empty stretch of prairie. At it’s peak, the proposed project would include 5,000 oil and gas wells on 1,500 pads.

The scale of the proposed project is hard to envision, but the numbers compiled by the Bureau of Land Management tell a story of staggering growth. With it comes a similar number of concerns, from road wear to water use.

At a recent public meeting in Casper, officials from the Bureau of Land Management said an estimated 8,000 jobs could be generated by the project and between $18 and $28 billion in revenue and economic activity.

The agency recently released its draft environmental study for feedback and held meetings in Casper, Douglas and Glenrock as part of the public comment period, allowing everyone from county officials to ranchers to weigh in on the proposed plan.

The project is an undeniable boon for business in the county and for nearby Casper, the center of Wyoming’s oil and gas services industry. It would offer both jobs and revenue for Wyoming at a time when the state is still distancing itself from the effects of a crippling bust in the fossil fuel industries.

But with big projects come big challenges. For some the environmental effects of the project could be as shocking as its industrial achievements.

“Oil and gas is part of our history and will continue to be part of our future,” said Jim Willox, a Converse County commissioner at the meeting in Casper. “This is just a process to help us look closer at what this development means to Converse County, the pros and the cons.”

The project

The Converse County proposal spans 1.5 million acres of land. It’s located between Douglas and Glenrock with the Interstate 25 along the southern border and the county line at the north.

Chesapeake Energy, Anadarko Petroleum, Devon Energy, EOG Resources and SM Energy brought the proposal to the Bureau of Land Management in 2014. The environmental analysis from the Bureau of Land Management considers a 10-year time frame in which five companies drill the 5,000 wells.

The joint approach to development over a wide area is unique in the Powder River Basin, said Mike Robinson, the project manager for the Bureau of Land Management.

This is the largest project Robinson has seen in the state, and these are some of the largest players in Wyoming. More than a dozen other operators are also drilling or planning to drill in the oil and gas rich area.

But the Converse proposal also stands out because of split estate. Only 10 percent of the surface is federally owned, but the Bureau of Land Management holds the rights to more than half of the resources to be mined.

That hampers the agency in some ways when it comes to development, Robinson said. The Bureau of Land Management does not have as much control over how the development proceeds as it would if it also owned the land.

“There are all these intricacies that private land adds to it,” the project manager said.

A lot has changed in the four years that the Bureau of Land Management has been studying this proposal. It’s a process that has to start somewhere, even though technological changes in the oil and gas fields have plowed ahead since the start of the environmental review, Robinson said.

A water problem

One thing is clear to both the agency and local officials: This project is going to take an incredible amount of water, more than was estimated in the environmental review.

In the proposed action, which mirrors the industry suggestion for how to proceed with development, the Bureau of Land Management estimated 9,750 acre feet of water will be disposed of every year, either in evaporation ponds or pumped down injection wells. That’s about 3 billion gallons of produced water every year.

The water demand needs a closer look, said Willox, the Converse commissioner at the Casper event.

Drilling has improved rapidly in the years since the environmental study began, he said.

“That means they get more resource out of the ground, but it also means they take more water,” he said. “That is one I think we’ve acknowledged as one of the challenges.”

It’s not clear where they going to get that amount of water in an arid region, said Jill Morrison, organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, who was present at the Casper event.

Neither is it clear how the companies will safely dispose of large volumes of liquid laced with salt and flow back contamination from fracking fluids, she said.

“If the price of oil goes up, it will be nuts. It will be the Bakken,” she said referring to the rapid oil and gas development that hit North Dakota.

The Pinedale precedent

Some see the Converse County project turning the Powder River Basin into the Bakken, with similar burdens of population booms and environmental risks. But others look within Wyoming’s borders, comparing the project to Pinedale.

One of the concerns that groups like the Powder River Basin Resource Council are paying attention to is the air quality issues that will arise from such a large production increase.

The Upper Green River Basin faced dramatic air quality degradation linked to the boom in development in the Pinedale and Jonah gas fields. The area also has a geographic disadvantage due to its bowl shape and the surrounding mountains.

Pollution levels were comparable to a smoggy day in Los Angeles, prompting action from the state of Wyoming to implement new standards in recent years.

But while focus on Pinedale’s ozone troubles increased regulations there, the eastern side of the state kept its lower standards, said Jon Goldstein, a senior energy adviser for the Environmental Defense Fund, which has long been involved in Wyoming’s air quality issues.

The Bureau of Land Management is currently reviewing, and possibly unravelling federal standards on methane emissions that would apply to all BLM land.

The ambiguity over the future of methane rules introduces an interesting challenge for the large project in Converse County, Goldstein said.

“If BLM isn’t going to have rules on the books to limit the pollution and wasted natural gas for these wells, it’s really going to put the onus on the state to do something,” he said.

The scale of this project brings the familiar issues of a boom in Wyoming, from transportation and water waste to federal rules and air quality. But they are that much larger, everyone agreed at the meeting in Casper.

Dustin Bleizeffer, spokesman for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, said the proposed alternative from the Bureau of Land Management appears to mirror exactly what the large industry companies proposed.

Where the plan falters, he said, is in militating against a host of environmental effects from industry at a scale that Wyoming hasn’t dealt with before.

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner


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Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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