Converse County oil, gas project nears poised to clear regulatory step

CASPER — The Bureau of Land Management published a final environmental review for a large oil and gas project proposed in Converse County on Thursday. If approved, it would clear the way for several energy fi rms to drill upwards of 5,000 new wells on about 1.5 million acres of land. The announcement triggers a 30-day public protest period starting Friday. 

The federal regulatory agency charged with reviewing the potential environmental and cultural impacts of the proposal moved to support an amendment to the area’s resource management plan. If ultimately approved, the final environmental impact statement and resource management plan amendment would give a green light to five oil and gas companies’ plan to drill 5,000 wells across about 1.5 million acres of land over the next decade. About 500 wells could be drilled each year. The land and minerals are owned by several entities including the federal government, the state and private owners. 

A team of energy firms, including Occidental Petroleum Corporation, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, Devon Energy, EOG Resources Inc. and Northwoods Energy, submitted the proposal to develop oil and gas in the eastern Wyoming county. 

The final environmental impact statement outlined three potential alternatives to the project, ultimately selecting a plan to allow the construction of up to 5,000 wells, 1,500 miles of gas gathering pipelines and 900 miles of water pipelines, along with roads, electrical lines and other infrastructure.

New surface disturbance could take place on 3.5% of the proposed project area, about 52,667 acres.

Federal regulators also studied six options for amending the Casper resource management plan. The proposed amendment to the resource management plan would lift some “timing limitation stipulations,” currently in place to protect non-eagle raptors, thereby allowing operators to “maximize the use of horizontal development from multi-well pads.” The revision would provide operators with the option to drill year-round. 

Wyoming lawmakers have long expressed support for the ambitious project, citing the promise of up to 8,000 jobs and the potential for state and federal revenue to the tune of $18 billion to $28 billion. State leaders threw their support behind the project on Thursday. 

“Oil and gas development is a cornerstone of Wyoming’s economy,” Sen. John Barrasso said. “The Converse County Oil and Gas Project is estimated to bring thousands of jobs and substantial revenue to our state. The final environmental impact statement for this project has been a long time coming. It’s the result of years of work and collaboration between federal, state and local stakeholders.” 

Regulators launched their environmental review of the project back in 2014. Meanwhile, drilling projects have occurred throughout the county without triggering a full environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act. 

Rep. Liz Cheney also called Thursday’s announcement “great news for our state.” 

“Our state’s fossil fuels are a national treasure and I am glad this important project is moving forward,” she said. 

Gov. Mark Gordon echoed the lawmakers’ positive sentiments for the project. 

“In a time when our state faces significant economic challenges, the decision to move forward confirms my belief that the oil and gas industry will remain a committed, responsible and vital part of Wyoming’s economy, as well as a valued partner to her people,” he said. 

“This project builds a consistent framework for energy development in Converse County,” he continued. “The State of Wyoming values the BLM’s coordination that took into account industry needs, wildlife conservation and the local economy. It took a long time, but in the end I am eager to see this important project come to fruition.” 

Local officials also championed the project’s progress, pointing to the millions of dollars in potential tax revenue, uptick in economic activity and creation of jobs. 

“The Converse County (environmental impact statement) is a long awaited path forward for U.S. energy independence and responsible, balanced development of the Wyoming and Converse County’s resources,” Converse County Commissioner Jim Willox said in a statement. “The jobs, tax revenues and energy this area has the potential to produce will benefit generations to come.” 

But conservation groups expressed grave concerns over the project’s overlap with critical wildlife habitats, and the cumulative pollution of air and groundwater. 

“There are 48 known (sage grouse) leks within the project area, and then there are eight more within a two-mile buffer,” said John Rader, a conservation advocate with the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “All of them could be wiped out by this project. The BLM is even saying in the final (environmental impact statement) that leks could be abandoned, nests could be destroyed, that nesting sage grouse would be killed. But the proposed alternative still waives timing limitations for grouse in general habitat management area, and the project would disturb over 11,000 acres within core sage grouse habitat or priority habitat management area.” 

Other environmental groups have also expressed alarm over what they consider far too few control strategies to limit harmful emissions such as methane, keep volatile organic compounds from polluting the air or safely dispose of the billions of gallons of produced water associated with the proposed development. 

“Western Watersheds Project vehemently opposes the Converse County Oil and Gas Project,” Kelly Fuller told the Star-Tribune. “It will cause great harm to raptors, greater sage-grouse and other wildlife. As if that weren’t bad enough, BLM proposes to let the oil and gas industry harm wildlife by giving the industry exceptions to BLM’s own simple, common-sense wildlife protection rules.” 

This comes as the Trump administration proposed revisions to the rules the Bureau of Land Management must use when monitoring oil and gas production on Wednesday. What’s more, the Environmental Protection Agency also finalized a significant overhaul to the regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act earlier this month. 

“The Converse County Oil and Gas Project is an especially bad example of the Trump Administration doing special favors for the oil and gas industry,” Fuller added. “BLM should reject this project and require all of the oil and gas development it administers in Converse County to follow BLM’s own wildlife protection rules.” 

The final environmental impact statement was compiled by Bureau of Land Management’s Casper Field Office, the U.S. Forest Service and the Douglas Ranger District. The analysis is required under the National Environmental Policy Act. 

The review of the project began in 2014, a time that attorney Shannon Anderson of the Powder River Basin Resource Council called “a different era.” Since federal analysis of the vast development project began, there have been multiple booms and busts in oil and gas markets. In recent months, the price for oil has tanked under the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic and a global glut in oil, leaving the future of the project up in the air. 

“Five thousand wells is a lot of wells, but when you put it into perspective with the thousands of wells that have been permitted in that area without an (environmental impact statement), it’s an interesting context,” Anderson said. “You have a lot of wells that have already been permitted, and have been permitted during this whole six-year period. So, the analysis in a lot of ways is already outdated, because it is not encompassing what already happened on the ground and what will happen.” 

The county has long served as a hub for energy activity, especially when the price of oil is favorable to operators. 

Since 2014, over 127 million barrels of oil have been produced in the county, along with 425 million mcf of natural gas and 109 million barrels of produced water, according to data collected by the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The public comment period will conclude on Aug. 31.