Environmental groups ask BLM to restrict drilling in grouse habitat

2013-10-28T16:22:00Z 2013-12-23T10:15:11Z Environmental groups ask BLM to restrict drilling in grouse habitatBy BENJAMIN STORROW Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
October 28, 2013 4:22 pm  • 

CASPER, Wyo. -- Three environmental groups petitioned the federal government Monday to block new oil-and-gas development in an area of key sage grouse habitat near Douglas.

The petition came a month after Gov. Matt Mead announced a plan with Chesapeake Energy to allow drilling in what is known as the Douglas Core Area and represented an effort by environmentalists to counter what they see as an erosion of state sage grouse protections.

“From our viewpoint, the core area protections are not even as strong as they need to be,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist in the Wyoming office of WildEarth Guardians. “And yet even this minimum amount of protection evaporates every time an oil-and-gas company wants to drill in a core sage grouse area. The outlook for sage grouse is grim indeed.”

WildEarth Guardians, the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and American Bird Conservancy petitioned the Department of Interior and U.S. Bureau of Land Management to prohibit construction of new wellpads and roads in the core area. The petition would also place seasonal timing restrictions to limit drilling during sage grouse breeding and nesting seasons, prohibit road improvements and only allow new pipelines and power lines within the existing right of way.

Sage grouse numbers have long been in decline because of a loss of suitable habitat. Their struggles have bedeviled Wyoming officials, who worry that the bird’s listing under the Endangered Species Act could greatly limit energy development in the state.

In 2008, then Gov. Dave Freudenthal signed an executive order establishing 31 core areas throughout Wyoming. The basic goal: protect key sage grouse habitat while directing energy development elsewhere.

Chesapeake’s drilling leases near Douglas predate the signing of the executive order, meaning the company is not bound by its restrictions, said Mead spokesman Renny MacKay.

Chesapeake could have drilled in the area without making any concessions to the state. Instead, the company will pay Wyoming $2.8 million for habitat restoration. Three management zones will also be established to direct development away from prime habitat within the Douglas Core Area.

One zone of nearly 10,000 acres would prevent development altogether, a change from the first version of the plan which would have deferred most drilling for three years, MacKay said. A second zone of 20,000 acres would allow drilling under the terms of the executive order while the third zone of almost 60,000 acres would largely be open to oil-and-gas operations.

Chesapeake currently has 17 wells spread across the latter two zones and has plans for additional 92, according to a report the company released in August. Chesapeake did not return requests for comment on this story.

“This is the best plan that we could come up with given the company had those prior lease rights,” MacKay said.

It was not immediately clear how long it would take federal officials to respond to the environmentalists’ petition. BLM officials in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment Monday.

The petition nonetheless could have far reaching effects. BLM-administered land accounts for only 1 percent of the Douglas Core Area’s roughly 88,000 acres. But the federal mineral estate is sizable, comprising nearly 40 percent of core area.

The state’s deal with Chesapeake will not protect sage grouse, environmentalists said. Habitat mitigation funds will do little to reverse the sage grouse’s decline, as habitat improvements require decades to take hold, they argued in their petition. Between 15 and 22 percent of the Douglas Core Area is already classified as disturbed – due in part to a railroad fire in the area – they noted; far above the 5 percent allowed under the executive order and 3 percent cap on disturbed lands recommended by a federal panel.

The state should prevent more oil and gas drilling, not allow more of it, Molvar said. By allowing more development the state only increases the likelihood of a listing under the Endangered Species Act more likely, Molvar said.

“If the state wants to have a strong voice in how things play out, it is import to come to a solution that is good enough to protect the sage grouse,” Molvar said.

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