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 Rock Springs Wyoming
January 2024 Exclusive Story

Outdated Data Distorts BLM Plan for Southwest Wyoming

CASPER, WY.—In response to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Rock Springs Resource Management Plan Revisions, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming and Western Energy Alliance have submitted comments defending multiple use of the area to Wyoming BLM State Director Andrew Archuleta. PAW and the Alliance filed their comments on the Jan. 17 submission deadline.

The proposed RMP would govern surface and subsurface acreage in Southwest Wyoming. PAW and the Alliance say they were compelled to take action to defend the oil and natural gas industry’s interests after a task force, assembled by the state and facilitated by the University of Wyoming, submitted comments that the groups say remained largely silent on several important issues.

“BLM gave stakeholders only five months to review and comment on a document it spent 13 years to develop. While I appreciate the attempt by Governor Gordon and the University of Wyoming to bring disparate voices to the table, the task force process allowed a minority of one to block proposals from other stakeholders, leaving important issues with the RMP revisions unaddressed. The reality is the BLM’s hard left turn toward the most restrictive proposal possible set us up for failure,” relates PAW President Pete Obermueller.

“Given the limited time, a flawed task force process, and the importance of our industry to the culture and economy of Southwest Wyoming, it is important for groups like PAW and the Alliance to pick up the slack,” he stresses.

“When we hear President Biden talk about his ‘whole-of-government’ approach to climate, this is what it looks like on the ground,” comments Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma. “BLM plans to close 2.5 million acres to leasing as a way to enact President Biden's unlawful leasing ban by other means. The plan purposely destroys the multiple-use balance on public lands by stopping oil and natural gas activity in a state that is one of the leaders in the country. The plan is against the will of the people of Wyoming and contrary to federal lands statutes.”

Prohibiting leasing on 2.5 million of the 3.7 million subsurface acres under Rock Springs Field Office (RSFO) management is “a vast departure from the current RMP, which sets aside 540,021 acres as closed in areas incompatible with oil and natural gas development,” the letter describes. It adds that “800,000 acres would be managed at no surface occupancy areas, representing a significant 412% increase from current practice.”

These changes would have a significant impact on the local economy, the letter argues. “Even without considering the full impacts, the BLM anticipates its preferred management objective will cause a reduction in economic activity of $907 million annually, with 2,920 jobs lost, equating to $211 million in less labor earnings in the planning areas, per year,” PAW and the Alliance say. “These are not meaningless, rounding error impacts, but would have generational impacts to people in the RSFO and beyond.”

The letter emphasizes the extent to which local communities rely on access to federal lands. “Wyoming, and even more so the communities within the RSFO, rely on access to public lands not just for outdoor experiences, but for economic prosperity and job creation. The influence the oil and natural gas industry has on this area of the state is expansive. It has shaped the cultural and societal fabric of these communities and supports robust economic activities,” it observes. Therefore, “the BLM holds the levers to allow this area of the country to continue to have a prosperous economy and the ability to access all of the incredible opportunities for outdoor experiences.”

Illegal Action

In the letter, PAW and the Alliance highlight the BLM’s legal obligation to allow oil and gas development on federal lands.

“The Federal Land Policy and Management Act directs that public lands be managed with recognition of the nation’s need for domestic sources of minerals and has thus identified mineral development as a primary use of public lands. The Mineral Leasing Act has further defined national policy as ‘promot[ing] the mining of coal, phosphate, oil, oil shale gas and sodium on the public lands.’ When intermingled, these two policies mandate that productive uses of public lands be allowed for the public interest,” the letter says. “Removing that potential from every acre not already leased is, in effect, a withdrawal of federal lands for a specified purpose, an outcome only allowed through Congressional action.”

Instead of “a blanket closure to any leasing and development on 2.5 million acres, the BLM should consider appropriately tailored lease stipulations to protect other resource values in the RSFO,” the letter suggests. “The associations (remind BLM that) the Energy Policy Act of 2005, as well as the Energy Policy Conservation Act Amendments of 2000 . . . require federal land management agencies to use the least restrictive means necessary to protect other resource values. Blanket closure to a principal use of public lands is not the least restrictive means.”

Flawed Assumption

To justify BLM’s preference for a restrictive approach, the draft RMP (DRMP) relies on shaky data, PAW and the Alliance contend. They point out that revisions to the DRMP began in 2011.

“The data relied upon to form the focused analysis was collected and is vintage 2010, meaning the assumptions in the DRMP are almost so outdated that, under any other circumstance, it would be up for revision soon,” the letter says. “It has become clear during this revision that the assumptions made in 2010 were off base, far beyond what could be considered within the bounds of a trend.”

For example, BLM’s reasonably foreseeable development (RFD) forecast projects that during the RMP’s 20-year life, 6,719 new wells will be drilled in the RSFO, an average of 336 wells a year. This activity level is used to estimate impacts on air quality, surface disturbance, water quality and usage, cultural resources, wildlife habitat, visual resources and other areas, the letter notes.

Actual activity falls far short of the 336 wells the RMP assumes. Citing BLM’s own data, the letter says only 18 wells were spud in the RSFO in 2022. “With this actual data, one would reasonably assume 360 wells would be drilled over the 20-year life of the RMP, not the 6,700 wells projected in the RFD,” the letter finds.

“Assuming the 18 wells spud in fiscal year 2022 (represent) an annual average, the BLM’s outdated projection causes a severe overestimation of oil and natural gas development by 1,867%,” the letter states. “The assumptions used in projecting impacts for every alternative . . . are overestimated somewhere in the ballpark by a factor of 19.”

The RMP also overstates development’s environmental impacts by failing to consider technological advances, the letter suggests. To illustrate the significance of those advances, it compares 2000 with 2020.

“In 2000, over 4,000 wells were spud in Wyoming. The following year (2001), combined oil and natural gas production totaled 327 million barrels of oil equivalent,” the letter recounts. “In 2019, just over 650 wells were spud, and 2020 production totaled 334 million barrels of oil equivalent. Just 20 years later, one sixth as many wells were needed to achieve a roughly equivalent production level, which represents a substantial reduction in land disturbance.”

The letter notes that horizontal drilling allows multiple wells to be drilled from a single pad. “This practice has reduced surface disturbance by as much as 70% and allows operators to access lease parcels with no surface occupancy, timing limitation, or conditional surface use stipulations,” it observes.

“If the BLM had used data based on more realistic activity levels, modern technologies and industry best practices, it would have provided the public a much more accurate picture of the magnitude of impacts that could be expected from oil and natural gas development in the RSFO,” PAW and the Alliance write. “In fact, recent, more accurate data would have driven down projected impacts from development to a level far below what was even considered in the conservation alternative.”

The letter goes on to say, “Projections incorporated into every alternative related to surface disturbance, water resources disturbance within lands with wilderness characteristics, vegetative communities, wildlife and fisheries, special status species, wild horses, cultural resources, paleontological resources, visual resources, livestock grazing management and recreation would all be much lower than what is presented in the DRMP.

“Relying on 10-year old data that did not account for modern technology and industry best practices has severely skewed the public’s ability to gauge the actual impacts that could be expected,” the letter assesses. “The BLM’s mischaracterizations are so important and so integral to the entire DRMP that the BLM must conduct a new RFD and issue a new DRMP. An updated, accurate RFD is so foundational to the projections in the DRMP that it cannot, at present, be relied upon.”

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