Print This Page >
Crowd heralds Noble deal
Lease buyback would protect Hoback River headwater basin from energy development forever.
By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: October 10, 2012
Preserving the Wyoming Range was forefront in U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas’s dying mind, his wife Susan said Friday in emotional words heralding a conservation deal to save a core basin there from gas development.
The late senator would have been “so pleased” with the $8.75 million buyout agreement that ended a seven-year battle over drilling in Noble Basin, she said. Legislation the late senator introduced to Congress before his death in 2007 shields 1.2 million acres of the range from development.
The law didn’t cover already valid leases, including 58,000 acres leased by Plains Exploration and Production. Friday’s news means that the range’s largest unprotected swath leased by PXP could forever remain free of gas pads, drill rigs, industrial trucking, compressor stations and more.
The property is just 30 miles southeast of Jackson, and conservationists have three months to raise about $4 million to complete the deal.
“There’s no doubt that Craig believed in energy development and exploration,” Thomas said to the packed room at Snow King Resort. “But, you know, he also believed in special places that helped give the balance that Wyoming people wanted.
“I walked into Craig’s hospital room when he was heavily sedated and I could hear talking,” she said of his dying days. “There was nobody in there but me. He was giving the finest talk, he thought, on the floor of the senate about the Wyoming Range and the wild and scenic waters.”
The Wyoming Range Legacy Act and Snake Headwaters Legacy Act eventually passed after his death and became the foundation for the deal to buy back the leases from PXP. Congratulations, she told the gathering, “for the rugged and the wild Wyoming places we all have in all of our hearts.”
The PXP deal, sealed by the Trust for Public Land, has potential to go down as a significant feat in Wyoming’s long history of conservation.
“We have a deal to save the Hoback,” Deb Love, the trust’s Northern Rockies director, said, taking the mic. “The announcement today is the result of a long campaign born in Wyoming’s small communities — in Bondurant, Pinedale, Jackson, Rock Springs and elsewhere.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and former Gov. Dave Freudenthal also attended. Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Scott Talbott was on hand as were county politicians, sportsmen and a gaggle of conservationists.
A Rock Springs trona miner clad in camo and blue jeans underscored the legacy of the pending deal. As a kid, he traveled the area with his father and learned a lesson.
“My father told me when I was a young boy that these mountains are his mountains,” Carl Bennett told the crowd. “He was handing them to me,” with instructions to keep them whole and to pass them on. Then came PXP.
“Not being able to pass those mountains onto my children made me furious,” he said, his daughters watching him from the wings.
“[It’s] not because I’m against oil and gas exploration or anything like that — hell, I’m a miner,” Bennett said. “There are some places too special to drill, and the Hoback is one of them.
“Learning of this agreement, it feels like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders, ’cause now I can hand these mountains down to my children.”
Bennett was connected to Citizens for the Wyoming Range, one of three groups — along with Wyoming Outdoor Council and the Wilderness Society — at the forefront of the opposition to PXP.
The last iteration of the plan the groups sought to block would have peppered some 90 square miles of the basin with 136 gas wells and 17 pads. The land, a mix of treed hilltops, sagebrush hillsides and grassy bottoms, is undeveloped save for some two-tracks. It’s a migration corridor and year-round habitat for deer, pronghorn, elk and moose.
At the announcement, Gov. Mead emphasized the value of the basin. He, too recalled passing the area with a member of another generation — his grandfather, the late Gov. Cliff Hansen — and how Hansen adored the landscape.
“This is historic,” Mead said. “Someday, there will be a grandfather out there with his granddaughter or grandkids, and there will be a point where that grandchild will see their first eagle or first deer or first moose, or have a chance to go fishing there for the first time. I can’t place a money value on that, but I know that it is invaluable.”
The Trust for Public Land was first approached about buying PXP’s leases in December 2010 by recently retired Bridger-Teton National Forest Supervisor Kniffy Hamilton.
“I realized that the only way any type of transaction would take place would be for [PXP] to donate the leases or for an organization to buy them out,” Hamilton said in an interview. “But then I didn’t hear anything for a long time.”
She reached out to Chris Deming, the trust’s Wyoming director.
“The timing wasn’t right, we knew,” Deming said. “We were monitoring it pretty closely for probably two years. ... Internally, PXP had shifted their focus away from natural gas to oil.
Then the stars aligned, he said. Natural gas prices dipped. “We got actively engaged probably about a year ago.”
The Noble Basin energy leases were first offered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 1994. They were transferred from company to company before landing with PXP in 2005. The BLM does not keep tabs on exchanges beyond the initial sale, and what PXP paid and how it values the leases is proprietary.
“Frankly, their information was irrelevant for us,” Deming said. “We as a nonprofit can’t pay more than fair market value. We negotiated terms, and we had a land man do an opinion of value for us.”
Although the Noble Basin was never subject to seismic testing, PXP had reason to believe it was a valuable asset, Wyoming Outdoor Council attorney Lisa McGee said.
“It is a similar geologic formation to the Jonah Field, which is highly productive today,” McGee said. “There also was a test well done nearby in the 1970s, and there was some data gathered as a result of that test well.”
PXP declined to give an interview on the agreement, but Steve Rusch, vice president of environmental health and safety for the Houston company, did release a statement.
“This agreement represents a win-win for all parties,” Rusch said. “PXP believes the project would have been accomplished in an environmentally sensitive manner, however, [the Trust for Public Land’s] interest in the leases represented an opportunity that was advantageous for all parties involved.”
Deming finally struck a deal with PXP about three months ago. Because of confidentiality agreements, the groups were tight lipped until last week. Mead didn’t hear about it until the week before last. Bridger-Teton officials heard two weeks before that.
While PXP and the trust have a deal on paper, the nonprofit still needs to raise funds to finalize the buyout. It has until Dec. 31 to raise $4 million.”
The $4.7 million raised so far came from foundations and private donors. Deming did not name names, but the Sublette Examiner reports Joe Ricketts, an Upper Hoback resident, contributed $1 million.
Preserving an acre of Noble Basin works out to a $150 donation, which can be given at TPL.org/savethehoback.
Deming said the trust is on a tight time line to come up with the balance, but he was confident it could be done.
“I’ve never seen a project that has such widespread support and passion around it,” he said. “For me, it is greater than the deal, because it is a template for this to be done elsewhere around the country in those other places that are too special to drill.”
The Noble Basin was the only place in the country where an industrial-scale energy development was proposed at the headwaters of a Wild and Scenic river, said Scott Bosse, northern Rockies director of the conservation group American Rivers. The Hoback had been on American Rivers’s “endangered list” for the past two years.
Bosse credited the trust for stepping in to complete the deal, but also commended grassroots activists who paved the path.
“The people that saved the Upper Hoback were hunters, anglers, boaters and guys in cowboys boots,” he said. “Those are thee types of people who attended the public meetings, sent comments in and got this thing done.”
One of the activists was Linda Cooper, a Bondurant resident who has waged a long campaign against drilling in her back yard.
“I’ll bet there were 100,000 letters that were written over the years,” she said Friday.
Fellow Bondurant resident Dan Smitherman, the face of the seven-year conservation movement mounted against PXP, greeted the news last week with predictable cheer.
“I think it’s the best possible outcome,” Smitherman said. “What it really represents is Wyoming people solving Wyoming problems. I’m just happy, I don’t know what else to say.”
A former big-game guide, he’s got some horseback trips into the Noble Basin pencilled in on his calendar.
“I was in there last week,” he said, “and I’ll definitely be in there again before the snow flies.”