As the third quarter oil and gas lease sale began Thursday, its opponents arrived at a meeting hall in Dubois hoping for a Hail Mary.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission was the last authority that could attempt to block development in the state’s only designated mule deer migration corridor. And though the third quarter federal lease sale was underway, the commission could still influence what happen during another sale in December.
They had hoped.
For a good part of the year, a debate over leasing in the Red Desert to Hoback migration corridor — a 150-mile run that skirts the southern edge of the Wind River Range just north of Wyoming’s most prolific gas fields — has been boiling.
The Game and Fish Department, the governor’s office and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have all heard the concerns. The state’s wildlife agency devised a compromise that it says will keep the invasive aspect of drilling — disturbance on the surface — outside the boundaries of the deer’s road to the mountains.
Organizations like the Wyoming Outdoor Council and the Wyoming Sierra Club argued Thursday that the deal is window dressing. A company may still be able to assert rights against the wishes of the Game and Fish Department, or the Bureau of Land Management could fail to inhibit drilling in the corridor.
Commissioners Thursday noted their shared concerns about this corridor, about its sensitivity and importance and the sometimes frustrating reliance on federal land managers. But, a balance between the deer and industry has been brokered by the Game and Fish Department, they decided.
Risky or not, the majority of the commission supported the compromise and the crowd went home without a win.
“No one wants surface use within the migration corridor,” said Commissioner Patrick Crank. “I would submit that the department has done as good a job as it can.”
The goal is to keep the corridor free of the well pads, roads and infrastructure of a gas field.
The Game and Fish Department is a consulting agency without real authority on BLM lands, but its advice to the feds was to defer parcels from oil and gas lease sales in September and December if 90 percent of the land was in the corridor.
That suggestion was accepted this summer.
For the tracts of land that overlapped with the migratory route, the department urged the BLM to attach a lease notice obligating the company to consult with the agencies on drilling, with the aim of encouraging companies to keep surface disturbances outside of the mule deer corridor. If a company refuses, Game and Fish will object and the BLM will require the company to complete an Environmental Impact Statement — a study of proposed development effects that allows for public comment and opposition.
The Game and Fish Department is hoping this will keep development out of the corridor. Opponents say it kicks the can down the road, with no guarantee that wells will end up outside the deer’s route.
A fine line
Mule deer are sensitive to development, a point understood by everyone in Dubois on Thursday.
The line between oil and gas drilling that doesn’t impact migration and development that does is delicate.
Placing 1.49 well pads per square kilometer, or 3.86 well pads per square mile, doesn’t appear to impact the deer’s behavior significantly, researchers find. Increase that to 1.75 well pads, and the corridor rapidly loses its usefulness.
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With uncertainty surrounding how much development the mule deer can support, Game and Fish recommended no development in the corridor.
But whether that will be the case is contested.
Against a backdrop of rising energy interest on federal lands and an energy-supportive administration in the White House, it’s likely that a lease notice requiring collaboration with Game and Fish before drilling will have little effect on what a company can do, some noted.
There is a restriction that carries more weight, said Lisa McGee, executive director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. A stipulation can be attached to leases that dictates what a company can and cannot do at the drilling phase. The lease notice attached through collaboration between the Bureau of Land Management and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department doesn’t have that authority, she said.
When commissioner Mike Schmid asked his fellow commissioners why they couldn’t just say ‘no’, the crowd of a little more than a dozen people in Dubois applauded.
Many people at the meeting expressed a distrust of federal land management.
“I’m cynical as hell about the feds telling me stuff,” Crank said. “Many times, what they say they don’t stand up and follow through with.”
But the Game and Fish Department has already made its case and worked on a compromise. An Environmental Impact Statement is a large undertaking, and if a company’s intent to drill kicks off that process, it’s no small limitation, he said.
For the commission to take a more dramatic stance would be a mistake, Crank said.
Department staff, defending the compromise, acknowledged its risks.
But there were limited options, and the authority lies not in Wyoming but in Washington, said Scott Smith, deputy director of external affairs, when asked about a letter from Mary Jo Rugwell, state director of the Bureau of Land Management, promising deference to the Game and Fish’ recommendations.
“It’s very clear under this administration; the state director is not the decision maker on deferrals. It still goes back to D.C.,” he said. “I will echo that the state BLM is very responsive to our agency’s recommendations.”
“We should try,” said Schmid. “Let Director Talbott make that call to the BLM. Just say ‘no surface disturbance within the corridors’ and see what happens.”
“I second what Mike says,” said Commissioner David Rael, sitting on Schmid’s left. “It’s not going to hurt. We’ve heard ‘no’ before.”
“I don’t think we’re disagreeing with you,” said Commissioner Peter Dube, who had just entertained a motion to support the compromise. “No one is disagreeing with you.”
Commissioner Crank pointed out that the Game and Fish had already said no to development in the corridor. The unresolved disagreement was whether the compromise would achieve that end.
There appears to be a chance down the road to protect the corridor in a stronger way, but for now the department has done what it can, Crank said.
The commission moved on to other topics.
Editors note: Due to a math error, information on the well pad density threshold provided at this meeting was incorrect. Research by Hall Sawyer and others has shown that the deer are unaffected by 1.49 well pads per square kilometer, not square mile as was cited at the meeting. The story has been updated accordingly.
Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner