Fed’s OK of 4,250-well gas field dodges water quality question


The Bureau of Land Management has approved a 4,250-well expansion of the Moneta Divide gas and oilfield northeast of Shoshoni, leaving critical water-disposal and -quality questions to be decided by state officials.

The BLM approved the proposed development, which would sprawl across 327,645 acres, Aug. 3, dismissing numerous worries about the environmental consequences it analyzed in a 2019 environmental impact statement. Among those are what to do with the 59 million gallons of tainted water a day that drilling would produce and that operators would have to dispose of safely.

How and where developers Aethon Energy Management and Burlington Resources Oil and Gas Company LP dispose of 1.4 million barrels of tainted water a day is the purview of state regulators, the BLM said in its approval documents. Operators pump the tainted water to the surface as they develop oil and gas wells.

Most of it would be pumped by Aethon. It would drill 4,100 of the new wells. Burlington would drill 150.

Developers could inject water back into the ground through 160 wells in two “disposal areas.” They could let it evaporate from ponds or truck it to other approved disposal areas or wells. The companies could let 2 million gallons a day flow to Alkali and Badwater creeks or pipe some of it directly to Boysen Reservoir via a 48-inch diameter pipeline, according to BLM approval documents.

The BLM approval accounts specifically for how only about 28% will be disposed, according to calculations made by WyoFile. That’s the amount — 15.4 million gallons a day — the BLM anticipates would be injected underground or discharged into the creeks.

The BLM doesn’t say what will happen with the rest of the produced water except that it’s an issue for state, not federal, regulators who administer federal environmental standards.

The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has authority over underground injection of the frequently briny produced water, and the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality authorizes surface discharges.

The BLM approval anticipates how much water can be pumped underground, however. Injection wells at two Moneta Divide “disposal areas” and their geologic receiving formations can only handle 13.4 million gallons a day, according to decision documents.

A pending Wyoming DEQ permit would allow Aethon to discharge another 2 million gallons a day into Alkali and Badwater creeks. The existing permit effectively limits discharges to 50,000 barrels —  about 2.1 million gallons — a day.

Even with injection and Wyoming’s pending approval of Alkali and Badwater creek discharges, it appears Aethon would have to dispose of another 43 million gallons a day of produced water during peak production, which would occur 15 years into development.

Not finding a solution to the discharge question could slow production, the BLM says.

“Should produced water volume exceed treatment or disposal capacities to the extent that Aethon will be unable to manage produced water in accordance with federal, state, or local regulations, then Aethon will shut in wells as needed,” the BLM decision reads. 

The BLM also has approved a 48-inch diameter pipeline from the gas and oil field to Boysen Reservoir. But any discharge would also have to be authorized through a state DEQ surface discharge permit.

After an inspection in 2019, DEQ asserted that Aethon violated an existing discharge permit at Moneta Divide, where more than 800 wells have already been drilled. The company said it was addressing the problem.

In its recent approval, BLM parroted earlier Wyoming DEQ thinking that the reservoir could dilute pollutants to the point they would not affect the protected Class I status of the Wind River when released from Boysen Dam.

The Town of Thermopolis gets its drinking water from the river about 20 miles below the dam.

BLM has approved up to 10 permanent and 20 temporary water treatment plants in the expansion. “The number of facilities, the level of treatment, and the treatment process will be determined by the water disposal method,” decision documents say. 

Aethon disagreed that its underground injection need be restricted to 13.4 million gallons a day.

The BLM “improperly” limited underground disposal to the Nugget and Tensleep geologic formations, Aethon wrote in comments. The company has tried, but failed, to earn Wyoming approval to also inject produced water into the underground Madison formation (not to be confused with the Madison Disposal Area), where there is more capacity.

Aethon said Wyoming makes those injection decisions, not the BLM. “The Preferred Alternative’s prohibition on injection into the Madison formation exceeds BLM’s authority,” Aethon wrote.

The BLM based its underground limits on a 2019 Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission rejection of an Aethon request to pump into the Madison Limestone formation, which is known to hold potable water. Aethon indicated in comments to the BLM that it may again seek a Madison formation permit. 

If Wyoming grants Aethon permission to inject underground more than the anticipated 320,000 barrels, or 13.4 million gallons a day — BLM could go back to the drawing board and conduct more environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, the BLM wrote in decision documents.

The BLM EIS did not provide enough information to evaluate produced-water impacts, the federal Environmental Protection Agency said. The BLM should address overall worries about the development’s produced water disposal instead of addressing the issue one well at a time, as the BLM plans, the EPA wrote about the expansion plan.

“Well-by-well … analysis is not designed to evaluate the site-specific impacts of full project development,” federal environmental regulators wrote. “Effects to the human environment … are likely to be significant,” the EPA wrote.

Aethon and Burlington could recover about 18.16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 254 million barrels of oil over 65 years, the BLM wrote. The project could generate approximately $182 million a year in federal royalties, $87.5 million a year in Wyoming severance taxes and $106 million annually in County Ad Valorem taxes.

Development includes construction of 10 central processing areas of 50 acres each, 20 compressor/water treatment facilities of 10 acres each, a 40-acre compost area and an 80-acre gas plant. The companies would erect 50 miles of power lines, bury 600 miles of gathering pipelines and drill up to 300 wells a year.The web of energy-field infrastructure would scar 20,132 acres in the short term and 6,208 in the long term, the BLM wrote. The BLM said the no-action alternative, rejected as a possibility, would result in the least environmental damage. The BLM is required to authorize a project, it wrote.

Development would bring an average of 740 jobs during development and 327 during the production phase, according to proposals. The influx of workers “has the potential to adversely impact many quality of life factors,” in nearby communities, a 2019 environmental impact statement says.

That includes crime inflicted upon Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho women on the nearby Wind River Indian Reservation. The BLM’s initially proposed solution recommended companies undertake an “environmental justice” program “to address the disproportionate impact on tribal populations by the influx of oil and gas workers.”

“Of tribal members, women would be most likely to disproportionately experience violent crime,” the EIS states. The oil and gas field lies about 10 miles east of the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Among the initial recommendations were that companies conduct background checks, coordinate among law enforcement, train employees, police themselves internally and set up services for victims.

But the agency refused to incorporate its own recommendation into the final approval, saying only that the environmental justice proposal “was not adopted.” That upset one environmental group.

“BLM got good publicity and praise for something they backed out on later,” wrote Kelly Fuller, energy and mining campaign director for the nonprofit Western Watersheds Project. BLM’s about-face is “echoing all the times the U.S. government made promises to Native Americans that it didn’t keep,” she wrote.

The Wilderness Society had even wanted the recommendation to be binding. In a comment, the group quoted President Donald Trump saying in 2019 the government would “leverage every resource” and “will not waver” in addressing violence against native women.

“The BLM does not … have jurisdiction to mandate this mitigation measure on oil and gas operators,” the BLM wrote of a proposed requirement. It then  dropped its previous environmental justice recommendation.

In its approval the BLM expanded protections for Native American cultural sites at Cedar Ridge and loosened protections for greater sage grouse in one of the underground produced-water disposal areas.

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

Advertisement