BLM Vacates Well Approval Following Pushback

Feb 13, 2020

NPL project area in maroon. Location of National Parks, Wilderness Areas and Sensitive Lakes within the NPL CMAQ 4-km Modeling Grid
Credit Bureau of Land Management

On February 7, the Bureau of Land Management, Wyoming State Office (WSO) vacated its approval of an oil and gas well and associated pipelines within Jonah Energy's Normally Pressured Lance (NPL) project in western Wyoming. The WSO remanded its decisions back to the local field office.

Timothy Wilson, BLM Acting Deputy State Director of Minerals and Lands, said in a response that the made the decision "based on a request from the RSFO [Rock Springs Field Office] Field Manager." But the language comes after an 11-page response to complaints from several environmental organizations.

The Western Watersheds Project, the Upper Green River Alliance and Center for Biological Diversity requested an approved well permit and pipeline be reviewed by the state director pointing to several issues including failure to encourage and facilitate public involvement, failure to adequately consider impacts to wildlife and climate change, and improper use of Categorical Exclusion to approve the project.

Kelly Fuller, the energy and mining campaign director for the Western Watersheds Project, said the core issue came down to how wells were being approved.

"We're concerned that BLM is using these Categorical Exclusions and Determinations of NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] adequacy when it promised in its Record of Decision and Final EIS [environmental impact statement] for the Normally Pressured Lance project that they would do site specific environmental analysis at the drilling permit stage," said Fuller. "They basically are using some loopholes, to not do any a environmental assessment for these wells."

In its response, the WSO said the well in question qualified under two statutory categorical exclusions.

"As to argument that a CX [categorical exclusion] cannot be used for approval of an APD, only the physical drilling of the well. While a novel argument, the BLM can only authorize drilling via an APD. To only address the physical drilling of the well outside of the full APD proposal would be segmenting a project," read the BLM's response.

Following recommendations by both the Rock Springs Field Office and Jonah Energy, the WSO did vacate and remand the two decisions. According to the BLM, there have only been five approved permits to drill in the NPL field.

Fuller said this action is part of a long-term bid to keep an eye on BLM's handling of the oil and gas project.

"We are very carefully watching as the individual wells and pipelines and access roads are approved. If we think that they are going to be really harmful for the wildlife, or that [the] BLM approval decision is unlawful, we are coming in and appealing," she said.

Paul Ulrich, Vice President of government and regulatory affairs for Jonah Energy, said they took a look at the groups' requests and felt it was important for the BLM to remand its decision back to the Rock Springs Field Office for review. He added there's no harm in this particular case.

Fuller said it's not yet clear if this process will trigger a public response, but hopes the public is able to comment on specific wells and infrastructure down the line.

The NPL project looks to drill up to 3,500 directional natural gas wells over a 10-year period in Sublette County.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.