Forest Service May Scale Back Gas Drilling Project in Hoback Headwaters
After pouring through nearly 60,000 public comments on a proposed gas drilling project at the headwaters of the Hoback River in western Wyoming, the Bridger-Teton National Forest came to a stark realization – none of the drilling alternatives in its draft environmental impact study complied with its existing forest plan or a special oil and gas lease stipulation that was adopted to protect the wildlife-rich public lands surrounding Jackson Hole.
There was one other glaring deficiency in the Forest Service’s draft study – none of the alternatives considered the impacts of drilling on water quality or fisheries in the Wild and Scenic reach of the Hoback River downstream of the project area. Congress designated the lower Hoback as a Wild and Scenic river in 2009.
As a result, new forest supervisor Jacque Buchanan announced earlier this month that the Bridger-Teton National Forest will evaluate two new alternatives that were not considered in its draft study released in December 2010. One will ensure the drilling project complies with the existing forest plan and the Jackson Hole Area Oil and Gas Lease Stipulation, which was put in place in by former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug in 1947 to protect wildlife around Jackson Hole from excessive energy development. The other will ensure the project complies with the existing forest plan, but may waive certain provisions of the Jackson Hole lease stipulation.
Both alternatives will address impacts to the Wild and Scenic Hoback River, Buchanan pledged.
The Forest Service is expected to release its supplemental draft study in late spring, at which point the public will have 45 days to comment on it.
Houston-based Plains Exploration and Production Company (PXP) is seeking permission from the Forest Service to drill 136 gas wells at the headwaters of the Hoback River using the controversial process of fracking, which involves injecting a toxic stew of water, sand and carcinogenic chemicals underground in order to break up the surrounding rock and release the gas. Last December, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent shock waves through the gas industry when it released a report linking fracking to groundwater contamination in nearby Pavillion, Wyoming.
The threat of industrial-scale gas drilling in its headwaters earned the Hoback the #7 spot in American Rivers’ 2011 Most Endangered Rivers report.
A preliminary analysis by conservation groups showed that if the Forest Service requires PXP to comply with the existing forest plan and the Jackson Hole lease stipulation, only 30 percent of the project area would be open to drilling and only 5 of the 17 proposed well pads would be permitted. With natural gas prices at depressed levels, that could well make the drilling project economically unfeasible and push PXP to seek a buyout of its leases. Because Congress withdrew 1.2 million acres of the Wyoming Range from new oil and gas leasing in 2009 – including the Hoback headwaters – a buyout of PXP’s gas leases would ensure drilling never occurs there.
That would be just fine with us.