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Sage Grouse

Sage grouse strut on a lek in 2015 near Baggs. The leader of Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team last week collected oil and gas drilling data to show that rig activity has not yet shifted to core habitat.

The leader of Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team last week collected oil and gas drilling data to show that rig activity has not yet shifted to core habitat, despite a rapid expansion of leasing and approved applications to drill in those areas under President Trump’s new regulations.

Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission numbers show that only 6 percent of the state’s new wells landed in core greater sage grouse habitat under Trump compared to 7.8 percent under Obama-era regulations, Bob Budd said.

He assembled the drilling data after conservation groups released a report that showed oil and gas leasing and federal approval of drilling applications shifted under Trump into priority habitat management areas — known as core areas in Wyoming — across the West and in the Equality State. He was unable to comment to WyoFile last week before deadline.

“The real measure of activity is not leasing or [Applications for Permits to Drill],” Budd wrote WyoFile in response to the report, “but spuds, or wells drilled.” Spudding is the process of beginning to drill a well and is an activity the oil and gas commission tracks.

Leases do not equate to actual ground-disturbing activities, he wrote. APDs, while more directly linked to drilling, are “clouded” by a race for ownership that’s secured by such applications.

The conservation groups discounted the leasing-drilling-impact argument. Drilling, they said, cannot occur without the initial leasing, a commitment that gives energy companies legal rights to develop.

Budd said “spuds” are more indicative of impacts to greater sage grouse habitat than either leasing or applications for permits to drill. Sage grouse specialist Matt Holloran of Western Wildlife Consultants LLC, who participated in the conservationists’ press call, agreed spud numbers are a potential direct impact.

“My argument is if it’s not leased, it can’t be developed,” he said Monday. “Each one of those metrics, in combination, is a suggestion that [activity] is increasing in priority habitat across the board.”

For Budd, the report by the Wilderness Society, the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation “implied that there was some kind of a big drilling boom on and that is simply not the case,” he said. “It’s pretty minimal as far as how much activity is going on in core.”

The spike in drilling approvals in Wyoming amounts to a more than six-fold (6.63 times) increase, authors of the conservation report confirmed to WyoFile. The report, “Oil and Gas Development on Federal Lands and Sage-Grouse Habitat,” highlights an “irresponsible shift in priorities,” Audubon Vice President of Public Lands Nada Culver said in a press call.

“The actual impacts in Wyoming have been minimal,” Budd countered in an email, “and some of the data … appears to aggregate the entire West and not represent the actual facts in Wyoming.”

The conservation groups compared two periods during which different regulations were applied to oil and gas activities on federal lands across the West. In one period of 16 months, regulators operated under Obama-era conservation rules. During the other 25.5-month period, they operated under Trump administration’s so-called energy dominance policies and rules advanced by former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.

Budd used those same periods to compare spuds in Wyoming.

During the Obama era, “there were 102 spuds in Wyoming, 8 of which were in core,” he wrote. Under Trump “there were 554 spuds, 33 of which were in core.”

“That means that 7.8 percent of actual spud wells were in core from 10/2015-1/2017 and only 6 percent were in core 2/2017-3/2019,” Budd wrote “Bottom line here is that in 5 years we have drilled 41 wells in core areas, with strict standards, and 625 outside core.”

Yet, the rate of well drilling in core habitat under Trump has more than doubled, according to Budd’s figures.

Under Obama’s rules, energy companies drilled wells in Wyoming core areas at a rate of 0.5 per month. Under Trump, that rate more than doubled to 1.29 per month, according to calculations made by WyoFile and based on Budd’s figures.

Budd objected to that analysis as being related to policy.

“Part of the reason I holler at that is if you go back and look at the time periods, what changed?” he asked. “What has happened to the price of oil? What happened to permits that were sitting on the desk for years? What happened … to situations with preexisting rights?”

“I can’t answer those questions,” Budd continued. The comparison “doesn’t say anything about cause and effect,” that different policies may have.

There are “a lot of moving parts associated with any kind of shift in activity,” he said, adding that, for example, there was “almost no activity” between 2015-2017.

“Was that driven by the Obama administration, by the market, by easier development in the Permian?” he said.

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Since the Obama administration there’s been “a little uptick,” in drilling activity, he added.

“If you look at that, it’s almost all outside core,” Budd said. Instead of “wildcat wells in pristine habitat,” a lot of drilling is “where you had industrial activity.”

“The rate of development in core is very, very low,” Budd said.

Grouse numbers appear to be declining across the West, and perhaps in Wyoming as well. Wyoming’s spring counts are being confirmed, Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s grouse leader has said.

“The decline in numbers is a big concern to all of us,” Budd wrote, “but it should be noted that it is somewhat universal. Areas with absolutely no level of development are showing the same trend as those that have development.”

Wyoming’s greater sage grouse protections, contained in a gubernatorial executive order, are expected to be updated by Gov. Mark Gordon this month, Budd told WyoFile. Major revisions are not expected, Budd said, including to the provision that states “all efforts to encourage, enhance and prioritize development outside of Core Population Areas shall be made.”

What did Wyoming do when the Trump administration shucked Obama-era prioritization to focus leasing and drilling outside primary habitat?

Budd said the implementation team has talked for years with the BLM about how to handle the process for leasing parcels that are nominated by industry.

“We have asked at different times, ‘How do we do incentivize things [that enable] getting in getting out [quickly], not only in core but outside core,’” he said. That speed reduces impacts to greater sage grouse, he said.

“If you’re going to have people not develop somewhere,” — core areas — “can they develop outside,” he asked. “Can you streamline permitting outside core?

“We did not allow core to be turned into Swiss cheese, but we do recognize and respect prior rights,” Budd wrote, “including subdivision, oil and gas, mining, agriculture and others.”

“Less than half of the acreage leased for development is actually developed, and of those acres, a minimal amount are actually disturbed or produced,” Budd wrote. “In core areas, there are strict standards that must be met in order to drill a well.”

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WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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