Safeguarding air quality, water, wildlife from massive Wyoming fracking project
8th of Sep 2022
This week, Advocates for the West filed a lawsuit challenging the Converse County Oil & Gas Project in the southern Powder River Basin of Wyoming. The massive 5,000 oil well project, approved under the Trump Bureau of Land Management, is projected to have a major impact on air quality locally and regionally, including in treasured landscapes of neighboring National Parks. Advocates for the West is representing Powder River Basin Resource Council and Western Watersheds Project in the case.
The lands affected are the traditional homeland of the Lakota (Sioux), Tsis tsis’tas (Cheyenne), and Apsàalooke (Crow) peoples. The Delaware-sized industrial project will also create irreversible negative impacts to wildlife through special exemptions from traditional habitat protection measures. Overall, the project threatens the survival of sage-grouse and birds of prey throughout the project area.
A key claim in the lawsuit challenges the Bureau’s refusal to regulate “Fee/Fee/Fed” wells in the project area, which are wells that drill directionally into federal minerals from adjacent non-federal lands. This illegal Bureau practice allows fossil fuel companies to extract publicly-owned minerals without common-sense environmental protections. The Converse County project consists predominantly of Fee/Fee/Fed wells.
“Fee/Fee/Fed wells now account for one-quarter of all federal drilling permits nationwide, and the Bureau of Land Management erroneously claims to lack authority to regulate surface operations associated with the wells,” said Sarah Stellberg, Staff Attorney at Advocates for the West. “This emerging trend of unchecked extraction of federal minerals poses serious risks to adjacent and downstream air, water, wildlife, public lands, and communities.”
“As climate scientists are urging an immediate end to new fossil fuel development to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, the Converse County project will result in massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come,” said Hannah (Clements) Goldblatt, Staff Attorney at Advocates for the West. “And beyond its enormous repercussions for the global climate crisis, this project will degrade the air quality of surrounding National Parks and local communities, deplete already fragile water supplies, and harm one of the most cherished and imperiled species—the greater sage-grouse.”
“The Bureau of Land Management has already started permitting hundreds of the 5,000 wells contemplated in the Converse County Oil & Gas Project,” said Maria Katherman, Powder River Basin Resource Council board member and long-time resident of Converse County. “This unprecedented level of development will create significant negative impacts in our county that have not been well addressed during previous booms. For residents, the increase in truck traffic on our roads leaves these roads in terrible shape and the increased dust where the roads are not paved makes a real air quality problem. There is already a noticeable increase in wildlife collisions on Wyoming Highway 93, and more will come with this development. The companies will only address these issues if mandated.”
“In their stampede to fast-track fossil fuel production in northeast Wyoming, the Bureau of Land Management has tossed aside all the usual and customary wildlife habitat protections,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and Executive Director with Western Watersheds Project. “Sage-grouse populations in northeast Wyoming are already considered to be nearing an extinction vortex, and this massive expansion of wellfields, industrial disturbance, and habitat fragmentation could well finish off the sage grouse in the region, putting the entire Great Plains population at serious risk of extinction.”
The drilling and production will extract oil and gas presently sequestered safely underground and will be a major cause of carbon pollution. The fossil fuel implications of the project are so large that by year ten, it will result in 69.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually, the same level of carbon pollution as 15 million cars operating for a year apiece. Serious air quality impacts are expected to result in national parks and monuments like Devil’s Tower, Wind Cave, and Badlands National Park. The large-scale oil and gas project will have effects felt throughout the region.
The area slated for drilling contains designated Priority Habitat Management Areas for sage-grouse, and the Bureau acknowledges that all 54 “leks,” or sage grouse dancing and breeding sites, could be abandoned as a result of the drilling and production. The project approval also includes a special plan amendment exempting it from restrictions on drilling activities in the immediate vicinity of raptor nests, during the nesting season, restrictions which would otherwise afford some protections for birds of prey. The lawsuit alleges that the drilling will cause ‘unnecessary or undue degradation’ to birds of prey and their habitats by allowing drilling activities close to nest sites.