By Angus M. Thuermer Jr.
FREMONT COUNTY – The Bureau of Land Management published Thursday its analysis of four options for expanding the Moneta Divide oil and gas field – a project that has stirred local debate over its potential for significant economic and environmental impacts.
The federal agency’s draft environmental impact statement on the proposed 4,250-well project on 327,645 acres of public, state and private lands near Lysite anticipates that the disposal of produced water from the drilling would meet all Wyoming permits, according to federal documents.
Separate from the federal draft EIS, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality has proposed allowing Aethon Energy Operating, LLC and Burlington Resources Oil & Gas Company, LP to discharge 8.27 million gallons a day of produced water into waterways upstream of Boysen Reservoir. The DEQ’s plan has raised concerns among downstream water users.
The BLM will defer to Wyoming to manage the water discharge element of the development, according to federal documents. “Treatment and disposal of produced water would be in compliance with State of Wyoming permit(s) including all protections against degradation of public lands,” a notice summarizing the project in the Federal Register reads.
The development, which would greatly expand long-standing oil and gas operations in the area between Shoshoni and Casper, is projected to produce about 18.16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 254 million barrels of oil over 65 years, the BLM wrote in a statement Thursday. Development could bring $71 million a year in federal royalties, $57.6 million a year in Wyoming severance taxes, and $70 million a year in county ad valorem taxes, the statement read.
“This would be a game changer, in my opinion, for Fremont County and for Natrona County,” Fremont County Commission Chairman Travis Becker told WyoFilein a telephone interview. “This would be a big, big deal.”
“Overall, I’m thoroughly in favor of moving this project forward…and putting our people back to work again,” he said. “Fremont County, for the most part, always leads the state in the unemployment rate. If we can help lower that rate, [if] this project does come to fruition, tons of people will be put back to work.
“These are going to be local folks,” he said. “We’ve got enough skills in Fremont County that can handle this.”
The BLM has targeted much of the area for development in its overarching Resource Management Plan.
Conservationists have raised concerns over disposal of contaminated water produced by oil and gas drilling and other issues.
“My organization is concerned that the project may contaminate protected Class I waters in the Wind River,” just downstream from Boysen Dam, wrote Kelly Fuller, energy and mining campaign director for Western Watersheds Project. The Wind River becomes the Bighorn River at the Wedding of the Waters, just upstream of Thermopolis. “We also think this project will be destructive to greater sage-grouse,” her email reads.
The draft EIS examines four alternatives, including the companies’ Alternative 2 plan to drill from a mix of single- and multi-well pads. WyoFilecalculations based on federal documents estimate that that Alternative 2 could see approximately 3,223 well pads developed.
“The project’s proposed high proportion of vertically drilled wells on single well pads raises an eyebrow because that would be more environmentally destructive than horizontal drilling with multi-well pads,” Fuller wrote.
The companies’ Alternative 2 plan also calls for 10 “central processing facilities,” a gas plant, up to 50 water disposal wells, a “product pipeline” to the gas pipeline hub of Wamsutter, and two treated-water discharge pipeline corridors that lead to Boysen Reservoir.
The draft impact statement also examines a “no-action” Alternative 1 that would see development in the area continue at its current pace under an interim drilling plan. The document also offers Alternative 3 that favors resource production, “using only single well pads and other measures that facilitate oil and gas development.”
The final Alternative 4 incorporates “resource conservation considerations,” including drilling 3,950 wells from fewer multi-well pads. It would allow “greater flexibility to use, treat, and dispose of water in response to changing technology and economic conditions,” according to the draft EIS.
Alternative 4 would increase protection of the Cedar Ridge Traditional Cultural Property, documents state. However, Moneta Divide oil and gas field could be expanded without such protections, federal documents say, presumably if a plan other than Alternative 4 is chosen.
Alternative 4 would allow a slower pace of development than the 15-year ramp-up anticipated for the other two “action” alternatives. The slower pace could occur “if needed, for managing produced water in accordance with federal and state requirements.”
The BLM has not selected a preferred alternative, and will do so after reviewing comments, a cover letter to the draft EIS reads.
One element of the associated Wyoming DEQ draft water discharge permit anticipates pollutants in the discharge flow would be diluted in a “mixing zone” in Boysen Reservoir. DEQ officials have said the flows from Boysen Dam would be within the range of normal fluctuation of pollutants that currently exist in the Wind River.
The proposal to discharge 2,161 tons a month of total dissolved solids in the flow, including more than 1,000 tons each of sodium and sulfate has concerned residents in Hot Springs County downstream of the project.
The town of Thermopolis gets its drinking water from the Bighorn River some 15 miles below the reservoir. Thermopolis Mayor Mike Chimenti, along with others, recently succeeded in securing a permit comment deadline extension from the DEQ and a commitment to hold a public meeting there.
The Wyoming DEQ will accept comments on the water permit until July 5, 79 days beyond its original April 17 deadline.
The BLM will accept public comments on the oil and gas field development through July 18 at its planning website. The federal agency said it would announce public meetings and other public-participation activities 15 days in advance.
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