The largest Green River Basin natural gas field in two decades is back on the table, at a time when the region is already a national hotspot for drilling.
The Normally Pressured Lance project, located south of the Anticline and Jonah fields, would add up to 3,500 wells on 220 square miles of mostly Bureau of Land Management property. If it were to proceed, the NPL Field would add to bustling “infill” activity in the already developed and adjacent Jonah and Anticline gas fields.
“Right now Pinedale is the busiest drilling office in the nation due to our infill drilling,” said Doug Linn, the BLM’s Pinedale Field Office assistant field manager. “Pinedale is actually a very major player in the overall national development scene.”
The NPL project must navigate the National Environmental Policy Act approval process before it adds to the activity. A draft environmental impact statement released last week is a first step, and though the development remains tentative it is already a cause of worry for conservationists like the Upper Green River Alliance’s Linda Baker.
Two decades of research at the Anticline and Jonah fields, Baker said, has illustrated the toll drilling rigs, expansive well pads and roads take on the ecology of sagebrush steppe ecosystems and on human beings.
“We’ve learned that natural gas development results in the loss of about one-half of our mule deer populations and the loss of a third of our sage grouse population,” Baker said. “There are impacts to human health, owing to venting and flaring and leaks. It’s difficult for us to catch our breath in the wintertime. Recreationists and those with asthma and children have been advised to stay indoors.
“The BLM and [Department of Environmental Quality] have severely underestimated the impacts,” she said, “and they continue to do so.”
The BLM’s planning document for the NPL project includes a “proposed action” brought forward by the applicant and lease holder, Jonah Energy. Most wells would be located on pads that range from 6 to 19 acres, and would be restricted to four per every 640-acre section of land.
Jonah Energy’s plan is to directionally drill 350 wells a year for a decade. They would remain in production for an estimated 40 years.
A “preferred alternative” described in the environmental planning document would allow the same maximum number of wells, but would cut back on the acreage disturbed from 1,890 acres to 1,741 acres. That option would reduce density of development in the northwestern portion of the project area, much of which is considered a wilderness-quality landscape, according to the BLM’s document.
The BLM’s Linn said his office is not leaning in the direction of one alternative over the other, and, confusingly, does not prefer the preferred alternative.
“We do not have a preference,” Linn said. “At this time any of the alternatives, including the no action, are still on the table.”
Some wildlife advocates worry that the build-out of the NPL field would jeopardize a landscape that has been identified as a winter concentration area for as many as 1,000 sage grouse and “core-area” habitat used by the species throughout the year.
“The Pinedale Anticline and Jonah Fields have already wreaked major destruction on sensitive breeding and nesting habitats for sage grouse,” Western Watersheds Project Executive Director Erik Molvar said in a statement. “And while directional drilling and piping of condensate will result in modest reductions in impacts, this is still a heavy industrial project that forces the birds to contend with industrialization on their winter concentration areas as well.
“Sage grouse populations could crash as a result,” Molvar said, “just like the mule deer population did.”
Baker worried for the migratory pronghorn herd that summers in Jackson Hole and winters in the vast sagebrush habitat south of Pinedale. There are no protections in the BLM’s plan, she said, for the “Path of the Pronghorn” that is used by animals that summer in Teton County.
“The Path of the Pronghorn doesn’t get any additional protections,” Baker said. “Most federal and state agencies, conservation groups and really the general public have agreed that protecting the Path of the Pronghorn is paramount.
“The millions of dollars that have gone to protecting the Path of the Pronghorn could be wasted,” she said.
The BLM is accepting public comment on the project through Aug. 21.
Two public meetings will allow the public to learn about the project, one in Rock Springs and one in Pinedale. The Pinedale meeting is scheduled for 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. July 25 at the BLM’s office at 1625 W. Pine St.