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Moneta Divide Field

A drilling rig operates in August 2011 north of U.S. Highway 20-26 and east of Moneta in Fremont County. A controversial plan to expand operations in the area advanced Thursday.

An oil and gas firm’s controversial plan to expand its operations by more than 4,000 wells in central Wyoming advanced Thursday with the release of a draft federal environmental review.

Aethon Energy’s Moneta Divide Oil and Gas Development Project lies north of Highway 20-26 and east of the Wind River Indian Reservation.

The more than 300,000 acre project area is mostly federally managed land, with 23 percent private surface and 10 percent state.

It was first proposed by Encana Oil and Gas and Burlington Resources in 2012.

The Bureau of Land Management estimates the Moneta project could generate $71 million every year in federal royalties, $57.6 million in annual severance taxes — which go to the state — and $70 million in local production taxes for counties.

The environmental analysis considers four alternatives for development, including the one proposed by the oil and gas company: a 15-year development period at a rate of approximately 325 wells per year and 65-year full project life.

Federal regulators have not chosen a preferred development plan at this stage. They will do so after taking public comment and consulting with other governing agencies.

With the release of the draft environmental impact statement Thursday, the public has 90 days to review the BLM’s analysis and development alternatives.

Moneta remains hotly contested by the people downstream of planned water discharges from production, a conflict that’s arisen over a planned state water discharge permit.

Aethon could increase the amount of salt water that it releases into Badwater Creek — a 20-mile seasonal stream that drains into the Boysen Reservoir, pending state approval.

Last year the Environmental Protection Agency vetoed the state’s original plan to re-permit the discharge at much greater volumes of produced water — in anticipation of the Moneta project. The EPA then asked in early April for more time to review the most recent state water permit proposal, something locals had also requested.

Wyoming regulators maintain that the increased water discharge will not impact the high quality water downstream. Others have doubts.

Environmental concerns have also been raised by conservation groups regarding the development plan, which includes a number of single well pads and vertical wells. Much of the development in Wyoming in recent years has pivoted to multi-well pads and horizontal wells that minimize surface disturbance.

Alternative development plans considered by the BLM include consideration of this vertical well approach, possible pivots to more directional drilling, mitigation for sage grouse impacts and varied options for water disposal.

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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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