Speckled across the Wyoming landscape, from public lands to private ranches, are historic Native American sites. They may be tepee rings, graves or marks along a trail, each telling parts of a story that goes back hundreds of years, for more than a dozen tribes that once lived or traveled in the region.
For federal regulators who find one of the sites near a proposed oil and gas location, the view of a large drilling pad, a road or a well could be considered a negative consequence on the cultural site. Or it could not.
Either way, the tribes are consulted, and that consultation can delay drilling.
In the last year, this federal permitting process has troubled some residents in Converse County. Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, says the Bureau of Land Management is interpreting the viewshed impact in a way it did not before, and it’s infringing on property rights. It’s an issue he will raise at Wednesday’s natural resources committee in Casper. The Petroleum Association of Wyoming will also comment on the conflict.
But federal officials from the local BLM office say there’s nothing new about the way they consider these sites. What’s changed in the last few years is the way operators drill and where.
“We’ve been following this same process for many years,” said Tim Wilson, field manager for the Casper Field Office. “The reason I see that people are more aware of it is we are seeing increased permitting activity and potential drilling activity in (parts of) that Converse County area that we never saw before.”
One of the difficulties with permitting oil and gas in Wyoming is that drilling isn’t a vertical game anymore. Wells go down, and then they shoot out laterally, usually encountering federal minerals along the way. If a well hits federally owned minerals, there are additional regulations that kick in for the surface, even on private land.
Drilling techniques have also introduced changes for the BLM, Wilson said. A coal bed methane well up in Sheridan County is not deep and the surface area impacted by the well is not large. But with horizontal drilling, an operator may seek to place multiple wells on a large 10-to 20-acre pad, he said.
The BLM has found more Native American sites east of Casper, and the agency is required by federal law to consult the tribes for each site, he said.
For Boner, and other landowners, something as broadly defined as the viewshed from a historic Native American site shouldn’t impede development if the landowner wants to drill.
Wilson sees the “viewshed” issue differently.
Imagine a historic downtown district in the West, he explained. If a condo were built on Main Street, that new building may change the environment and the experience of the historic district. It’s an issue that comes up at trail sites in the West as well, he said.
“What would the introduction of a modern feature do to the setting of the trail?” Wilson said. “How might that detract from what the original immigrants might have experienced?”
Part of the challenge in Converse County is simply educating those new to the issue, Wilson said.
For landowners who live near the extensively developed Jonah field in western Wyoming, the federal permitting requirements are familiar, he said.
In Converse County, though it has been developed steadily for many years, a couple of factors are bringing Native American sites and development to the fore, said Kristen Lenhardt, spokeswoman for the BLM in Wyoming.
Drilling is happening in new corners of the county, she said. Techniques like horizontal drilling are introducing more people to the federal regulations, and regulators are discovering additional sites due to a larger surface impact from larger drilling pads, she said.
Of about 400 applications to drill in the Casper field office since last October, about 50 required consultation with the tribes.
There are 18 tribes that BLM contacts about Wyoming sites. About 10 tribal governments regularly respond to identify if a site is important, and if so, how, Wilson said.
Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone are common collaborators, as are the Northern Cheyenne, Crow and Sioux tribes.
And though property access for tribal members may be an issue for some landowners, others are eager for that interaction to take place, Wilson said.
They want to know the history.
Regardless, the BLM is obligated to follow the National Historic Preservation Act, and though some are concerned that viewshed is being interpreted too broadly, the BLM is not expecting a change to its process, Wilson said.
The federal regulators want to work with lawmakers and landowners to help them understand the process better, said Lenhardt.
“It really is about communication. I think that’s our primary focus right now especially with a lot of new people who haven’t had to experience this process before,” she said. “Any time we can have good relationships with the tribes, with operators with local government that is what we are focused on ... so we can find a way forward.”