Federal regulators must complete additional analysis of the climate impacts of a 156-well drilling project in northern Converse County before development can proceed, according to a decision this week by the state director of the Bureau of Land Management’s Wyoming Office.
The decision, dated Wednesday, states that the Casper Field Office of the BLM must complete a supplementary analysis of additional greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the development of 156 approved oil and gas wells on public lands leased by Houston-based EOG Resources in the Sand Creek environmental assessment area.
According to a representative from the Center for Biological Diversity, Wednesday’s decision appears to represent a “growing acknowledgment” within the BLM that environmental laws require public land managers to consider the climate consequences of public lands fossil fuel development.
The 156-well project was approved in the same wave of federal leases granted in the Powder River Basin in 2018 and – though separate from other developments in the region – could affect the approval process for other projects in the region, particularly projects developed through the federal government’s public lands program, which has seen an increase in drilling permits issued under the Trump administration.
“It’s definitely got much broader implications,” said Michael Saul, a Denver-based senior attorney for the Center of Biological Diversity. “For years – not just under this presidential administration – there’s been this systematic effort to try and ignore or minimize climate harms from public lands drilling. We’re seeing courts not stand for that, and we’re seeing situations where this administration has gone a step further to minimize public disclosure and public comment opportunities on both leasing and drilling permit decisions. That’s really exacerbating the problem.”
Wednesday’s decision comes after several months of effort by the Western Watershed Project, who said the public was largely kept in the dark over the project’s approval process.
Kelly Fuller, the energy and mining campaign director for that organization, said the lack of public comment on the project raised significant concerns, prompting her organization to file a request for review from the Wyoming state director. However, the result of that review – a stay of the process until additional information on the climate impacts of the project were collected – presents additional concerns: namely, a lack of oversight that can lead to violations of standards for oil and gas development on federally-owned land.
“I would say – if I were an oil and gas producer that wanted to do work in that area – the concern I would have is the BLM is not doing a good enough job on these analyses,” she said. “I don’t think this one is an unusual case, but I do think any of these smaller ones could be vulnerable. If the BLM rams these things through, then yes, that could be a real problem for the operators, because they have these vulnerable analyses. If I were the industry, I would really want to know what the heck is going on in that field office, because I might have concerns my project might be vulnerable.”
Houston-based EOG Resources is a well-established player in the oilfields of eastern Wyoming, with a keen focus on the state’s Powder River Basin. The firm has said 2019 would be an active year in the region, where the company would focus on infrastructure development in the basin in a bid to meet its plans there, following a record-breaking year for drilling in Converse County in 2018.
In a statement, a spokesman for EOG Resources said the company “will continue to work with the BLM in order to finalize the Sand Creek analysis.”
The project’s ability to comply with those standards, Saul said, could potentially set the tone for future development in the region. The extent of that, however, is an open question.
“Eventually, [the federal government] is going to have to come to terms with the fact that the continued expansion of public lands drilling is inconsistent with any reasonable climate mitigation goals,” Saul said. “Will that happen in the context of one individual project? It’s hard to say. But this is a systematic problem with the public lands leasing and drilling program. It’s never had a comprehensive accounting of the climate consequences.”