You are the owner of this page.
A1 A1
Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Jackie Landess, operations manager for David Street Station, stands for a portrait in front of the stage Dec. 20. The public plaza will host a New Year's mac and cheese festival Monday. 

The highs and lows of a year in Wyoming oil

The price of crude is set to end the year about $20 lower than it began, undermining what had been a consistent comeback streak for the business that pays Wyoming’s bills.

The turnaround in oil prices really began in 2017, but the resulting dollars, jobs and environmental conflicts were the subject of this year’s stories.

From an unbridled rush to secure drilling rights in the Powder River Basin to large federal projects receiving a green light, the 2018 narrative of oil was one of an industry finding solid ground after the bust.

Permitting bonanza

Wyoming rules state that whoever gets the drilling permit first gets the most say in how the drilling goes.

The rules are more complicated than that, but it’s true that the first in gets the greatest authority in a drilling and spacing unit. With that reality in mind, and a strengthening price environment, companies like Anadarko, EOG Resources, Wold Energy Partners and others have filed thousands of applications for permits to drill. The applications came in faster than staff at the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission could process them, creating a backlog that hit 10,000 applications for permits in March.

Supervisor Mark Watson announced at the commission hearing that month that the OGCC was going to create a drilling schedule to deal with the flood of applications. Producers ready to go after hydrocarbons would get their applications processed first.

The permitting rush in the Powder hasn’t slowed down. The number of APDs yet to be processed by the commission hit 25,000 in November. Practically, staff is only committing its resources to the permitting apps on the drilling schedule, as it’s likely that many of those further down the priority list will never result in a well in Wyoming. However, the rush to permit is indicative of a change that’s been anticipated for a long time, that the Powder River Basin is reaching a turning point as an attractive play ready for the big investment.

Big project approvals

Two massive oil and gas projects moved forward in 2018. A 5,000-well proposal from multiple oil and gas firms in the Powder River Basin is near approval and a 3,500-well gas project in western Wyoming was given the green light.

In both cases, long-awaited energy plans came closer to fruition, with the promise of jobs and wealth for Wyoming over the long term. Both also introduced a number of challenges that come from the trade-offs that energy development brings in the state, from wildlife to water use.

The Converse County oil and gas project is estimated to generate 8,000 jobs over a 10-year period. The project area is north of Interstate 25 between Douglas and Glenrock, stretching north to the Campbell County line. Five large players proposed the environmental review from the Bureau of Land Management in 2014. Doing a large-scale assessment ahead of time for the project allows for more streamlined permitting on the ground going forward, with issues like drilling near raptors, disposing of produced water and air quality all taken into consideration.

Critics of the bureau’s preliminary analysis noted that there were some serious concerns raised by the project, in part because the federal agency had taken an unusual stance in naming the industry-proposed plan as the preferred method of development.

The gas fields will also see a significant boost with the NPL project from Jonah Energy, which the BLM approved in August.

The NPL would have a 40-year life, generating up to $17 billion in revenue, according to the BLM assessment.

Like the Converse County project, NPL has made waves for its effects on wildlife, like a wintering sage grouse population, and environmental concerns for a region that was already beset for some years with winter ozone from oil and gas development.

Feds change tune

The ambitions of the oil business are often pitted against other values in Wyoming, and conflicts grew with the improvement in industry’s outlook.

The time delays of drilling on federal land have long been a frustration for producers. Over the last year the BLM has tried to cut through some of the red tape that industry argues is superfluous, slimming down public comment periods and increasing the amount of land in the four annual oil and gas lease sales. Other changes have also been floated, though they have yet to be implemented or approved by the feds, such as replacing the application to drill process for some wells to a notification of drilling.

Conservation groups, from hunters to environmentalists, have fought or criticized those changes, arguing that there are more values to Wyoming land than what lies beneath it.

In the case of a mule deer corridor from the Red Desert to Hoback, groups were effective in limiting the land leased in the corridor. The governor’s office and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department compromised by allowing leasing to overlap with the corridor, but attaching a lease notice to those parcels encouraging drilling outside the route taken by mule deer twice a year.

That compromise has not been enough to quell frustration from biologists, hunters and conservation groups, who say the area should be off limits to oil and gas leasing until stronger guidelines have been completed by the federal agency curbing what a developer can do on that land.

Local returns

Locally, the oil and gas turnaround has been good for a number of industry-rich regions in the state. With the biggest drilling thrust gradually taking place in the Powder River Basin, towns like Douglas were the first to see the change on the horizon.

In January, the Star-Tribune spent time in the boom-bust community rooted in agriculture, where locals were anticipating the uptick. The county was expecting a $500 million increase in its valuation, largely due to the coming energy dollars. But school officials at the time said they were still dealing with the effects of the bust — fewer dollars for education.

To the west, the neighboring school district of Glenrock was also strapped for cash, even as signs of a return in the oil business flickered north of town. The district, Converse County 2, had laid off 17 employees during the bust and offered others workers buyouts. It cut its school week down to four days.

It took much of the year for the good news in the price and the increase in drilling to spill into local economies and rank-and-file workers.

Wyoming had lost 8,000 people from 2016 to 2017. The workforce continued to shrink in 2018, even as jobs were added in the mining sector.

Oil and gas jobs returned but remained lower than the boom times of 2014 when 17,900 workers were employed across the industry in Wyoming. By March of this year that number had climbed to 12,500.

In Casper — a state hub for the oil and gas sector — shops started seeing a certain uptick by the middle of the year. Businesses that service the oilfields reported that they were steady to growing by the time the winter weather set in. Then, the price started its wobble.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Canada geese tuck their heads in their feathers to keep warm during high winds while resting on ice atop the North Platte River Saturday morning.

Trump's promise of a wall may not be fulfilled as advertised

WASHINGTON — Three confidantes of President Donald Trump, including his departing chief of staff, indicated that the president’s signature campaign pledge to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border would not be fulfilled as advertised.

Trump sparked fervent chants of “Build that wall!” at rallies before and after his election and more recently cited a lack of funding for a border wall as the reason for partially shutting down the government. At times the president waved off the idea that the wall but be anything but a wall.

However, White House chief of staff John Kelly told the Los Angeles Times in an interview published Sunday that Trump abandoned the notion of “a solid concrete wall early on in the administration.”

“To be honest, it’s not a wall,” Kelly said, adding that the mix of technological enhancements and “steel slat” barriers the president now wants along the border resulted from conversations with law enforcement professionals.

Along the same lines, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway called discussion of the apparent contradiction “a silly semantic argument.”

“There may be a wall in some places, there may be steel slats, there may be technological enhancements,” Conway told “Fox News Sunday.” “But only saying ‘wall or no wall’ is being very disingenuous and turning a complete blind eye to what is a crisis at the border.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is close to the president, emerged from a Sunday lunch at the White House to tell reporters that “the wall has become a metaphor for border security” and referred to “a physical barrier along the border.”

Graham said Trump was “open-minded” about a broader immigration agreement, saying the budget impasse presented an opportunity to address issues beyond the border wall. But a previous attempt to reach a compromise that addressed the status of “Dreamers” — young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children— broke down last year as a result of escalating White House demands.

Graham said he hoped to end the shutdown by offering Democrats incentives to get them to vote for wall funding and told CNN before his lunch with Trump that “there will never be a deal without wall funding.”

Graham proposed to help two groups of immigrants get approval to continue living in the U.S: about 700,000 young “Dreamers” brought into the U.S. illegally as children and about 400,000 people receiving temporary protected status because they are from countries struggling with natural disasters or armed conflicts. He also said the compromise should include changes in federal law to discourage people from trying to enter the U.S. illegally.

“Democrats have a chance here to work with me and others, including the president, to bring legal status to people who have very uncertain lives,” Graham said.

The partial government shutdown began Dec. 22 after Trump bowed to conservative demands that he fight to make good on his vow and secure funding for the wall before Republicans lose control of the House on Wednesday. Democrats remained committed to blocking the president’s priority, and with neither side engaging in substantive negotiation, the effect of the partial shutdown was set to spread and to extend into the new year.

In August 2015 during his presidential campaign, Trump made his expectations for the border explicitly clear, as he parried criticism from rival Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor.

“Jeb Bush just talked about my border proposal to build a ‘fence,’” he tweeted. “It’s not a fence, Jeb, it’s a WALL, and there’s a BIG difference!”

Trump suggested as much again in a tweet on Sunday: “President and Mrs. Obama built/has a ten foot Wall around their D.C. mansion/compound. I agree, totally necessary for their safety and security. The U.S. needs the same thing, slightly larger version!”

Talks have been at a stalemate for more than a week, after Democrats said the White House offered to accept $2.5 billion for border security. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer told Vice President Mike Pence that it wasn’t acceptable, nor was it guaranteed that Trump, under intense pressure from his conservative base to fulfill his signature campaign promise, would settle for that amount.

Conway claimed Sunday that “the president has already compromised” by dropping his request for the wall from $25 billion, and she called on Democrats to return to the negotiating table.

“It is with them,” she said, explaining why Trump was not reaching out to Democrats.

Democrats maintain that they already presented the White House with three options to end the shutdown, none of which fund the wall, and insist that it’s Trump’s move.

“At this point, it’s clear the White House doesn’t know what they want when it comes to border security,” said Justin Goodman, Schumer’s spokesman. “While one White House official says they’re willing to compromise, another says the president is holding firm at no less than $5 billion for the wall. Meanwhile, the president tweets blaming everyone but himself for a shutdown he called for more than 25 times.”

Looking back: Natrona County shuttered four schools in 2018, affecting more than 700 students and 140 staff

The closing of four Casper-area schools in 2018 marked several bitter endings.

For those four schools, the closures — approved by the Natrona County school board in October 2017 — were the end of their educational existence. Three of those schools — Mills’ Mountain View and Casper’s University Park and Willard — all now stand empty, “mothballed,” waiting for the day they may be needed again. The fourth, the failed experiment that was Frontier Middle, shared a building with another school. Its closure left not even a standing reminder that it had, for a decade, been home to a dwindling number of Casper children.

For the Natrona County School District, the closure marked the extinction of small schools. Superintendent Steve Hopkins told the Star-Tribune in June that was always going to happen, that the district had long planned a gradual move to larger facilities. But a precipitously declining enrollment and heavy budget cuts from the state Legislature hastened that plan. Closing the four schools meant saving $2.5 million a year. There are now just four non-rural schools in the county that have fewer than 300 students.

For Mills, the closure of Mountain View was the end of education in the small town west of Casper. Mills Elementary closed, with the consent of the school community, in June 2017. Mountain View, which is technically located outside of the town’s borders but only by the strictest definition, was significantly under capacity, and the district needed to save money.

That argument did not satisfy the town. In October 2017, two weeks before the school board vote, the town council passed a resolution opposing the impending closure. In January, the town sued the district, alleging the closure was unlawful for a variety of reasons.

As the lawsuit festered, Mills Mayor Seth Coleman took the lectern at a school board meeting in March and accused a former board chairman — Kevin Christopherson, who is still on the board — of bribery. Christopherson told the Star-Tribune that he had emailed Coleman and told him that if the town purchased Mills Elementary, which the district had been attempting unsuccessfully to sell, then district officials would set aside the proceeds of the sale for the future reopening of Mountain View, should the school be needed again. Christopherson said he was trying to make a deal that would benefit everybody; he denied that it was a bribe.

Coleman — whose wife, Angela, serves on the board — derisively referred to the board members as aristocrats and told them they could take Christopherson’s offer and “shove it.”

The lawsuit would be dismissed in April, and Mountain View would close in June.

The closures also marked the lowest point of the education-funding crisis for the Natrona County School District. That’s certainly relative: Other districts across the state have had to institute layoffs, something officials here have been able to avoid via the closures.

The economic bust of a few years ago left the state facing a sizable hole in its school funding going forward. Lawmakers have considered a number of solutions, leaning heavily on cuts. To absorb them, officials here have eliminated dozens of positions, slashed budgets and closed five schools — four last June and one, Grant Elementary, in June 2017.

Time will tell, but there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic that those closures will be the low point. Enrollment — both here and across the state — has ticked back upward, as has the state’s economy. District officials have said they have no plans or appetite to close any more schools. Barring significant legislative action, the district shouldn’t be facing the sizable cuts it had been forced to deal with when it made the decision to shutter those four buildings.