DOUGLAS — While the Bureau of Land Management stamped a big, green “Yes!” on the 5,000-well Converse County Oil & Gas Project between Douglas and Glenrock Dec. 23 when it released its years-long Record of Decision, no new wells will be drilled on the project anytime soon, some officials say.
A project of this magnitude takes time – that, and a plethora of applications for permits to drill oil on the state and federal level, according to Wyoming Oil & Gas Conservation Commission Supervisor Mark Watson.
Watson said his organization has no jurisdiction over the project, but if any of the five companies involved want to drill on private land, they will have to apply for permits with the WOGCC, and that will take time.
“A (company) would only get a permit with BLM if they were accessing federal minerals. If they have 100% private minerals, BLM would have no jurisdiction and they would have to go through the state for us to approve a drilling permit. There may be some instances when they would be required to have a permit from both BLM and the state. I know it’s complicated,” Watson stated. “If they can’t get the permits, they can’t drill.”
In actuality, BLM handing down permission for the project to move forward, while a positive, isn’t a done deal which will start raking revenue into Converse County coffers again.
There are numerous factors coming into play regarding when permitting – and drilling – for the project will begin, perhaps the greatest of which is money.
Watson said he believes two things will have to come into play before the energy industry booms in Converse County again: The price of oil will need to be at or above $50 a barrel, which it is as of Jan. 12, and COVID-19 will need to go away.
“We’re halfway there,” Watson said.
There are also environmental concerns from the area’s Indigenous people.
Leaders of several tribal nations remain concerned the enormous, 10- year development will compromise air and water quality, violate existing treaty rights and destroy cultural resources, according to an article by the Casper Star.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe maintains that U.S. regulators “failed their duty” to uphold federal law and properly consult with tribes, calling the environmental reviews associated with the project “deficient,” according to recent protests, the newspaper reported last week.
Tribal officials said their comments and concerns went unheeded, and have since stated they will file appeals seeking to block the project.
BLM Public Affairs Specialist Courtney Whiteman said from BLM’s standpoint, federal officials feel like they appropriately engaged with tribal leaders.
“We’ve been through several rounds of tribal consultation with the tribes in the area. We did respond to the comments and protests they submitted. We feel like we’ve resolved their concerns. While essentially all of our analysis and process for the overall Converse County decision is over, since we released the record of decision, that it does not preclude further tribal consultation in the future when we start looking at site specific development proposals from the companies in this area. That requires another round of more specific and narrower analysis with tribal consultation at that stage, too,” Whiteman stated.
Whiteman said to her knowledge, nothing had been filed in court to stop the 5,000-well project.
“We might see that in the coming days or months. I think the next step they would have to take since we’ve already resolved the protests and issued the record of decision would be litigation. The ROD came out. At this point, they can talk about what they don’t agree with, but the ROD is done,” she said.
Whiteman noted the tribal leaders might have an opportunity to appeal to the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) as a first step.
IBLA exercises the delegated authority of the Secretary of the Interior to issue final decisions for the Department of the Interior.
“Essentially that is kind of the same as an appeal to an administrative board, however,” she said.
NDN Collective President/Founder/Chief Executive Officer and Oglala Lakota Nation citizen Nick Tilsen did not return requests for comment on the federal decision to greenlight the project.
Wyoming Outdoor Council Communications Director Alan Rogers said he is also concerned by BLM’s landmark decision. He’s worried about raptor and sage grouse protections, which, he said, are basically nonexistent in the ROD.
“It’s difficult. There’s so much economic potential in the areas, but it creates a lot of threats for sage grouse and raptors. In terms of human factors, unfortunately what I think we’re going to see in regards to the decision is there’s the potential for a lot of litigation.
“Under the Biden administration BLM may not issue permits,” Rogers said. “This could have been avoided if during the EIS process the impact on wildlife had been taken seriously in terms of raptors, timing stipulations, industrial activities by humans being prohibited during raptors’ and sage grouse breeding times. It’s not that BLM failed to enact (protections), it was, without justification, eliminated.
“The protection would have taken care of falcons, hawks, owls, sage grouse. (BLM) failed to create it, to uphold their own requirements and the Wyoming executive order to prioritize sage grouse management plans,” he continued. “BLM failed to take it into account whatsoever. I’m not a biologist, but if sage grouse leks are disturbed, sage grouse won’t breed. Leks are essential to sage grouse populations staying intact.
“ There’s truly so much more to it,” he said.
Still, Whiteman agrees the 5,000- well project is good for Converse County and good for Wyoming.
“The next step if the decision doesn’t get appealed or litigated would be for the companies to submit applications for permits to drill. Those companies will choose where or when to do that, and a lot of that is based on market prices and corporate interests,” she said. “It’s hard to pinpoint or really be able to say when development on the project could begin. That decision is based on numerous variables.”