Cat Urbigkit: Court upholds plan for new 3,500-well gas field in Sublette County

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

Environmental advocates have failed to make a convincing case against Jonah Energy’s proposed normal pressure lance (NPL) project in western Wyoming, according to a federal court ruling issued last week.

The NPL project would allow the drilling of up to 3,500 directional natural gas wells (approximately 350 new wells per year over a 10-year period), using multi-well pads and with a maximum of 4 well pads per section (640 acres) . The project area encompasses approximately 141,000 acres of primarily public land immediately south and west of the existing Jonah Gas Field in Sublette County.

The decision by Judge Scott Skavdahl of the U.S. District Court in Wyoming determined that the Bureau of Land Management carefully considered the environmental consequences and considered all relevant information when making its decision and selecting the best alternative for balance the objectives of the NLP Project and its potential environmental impacts.

What the case demonstrates is that when environmental groups don’t have a federally protected species to hang their litigation hats on, their arguments aren’t as effective in blocking or stopping projects when a case is brought before the Federal Court.

The lawsuit was brought by the Upper Green River Alliance, the Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity. They claimed that the BLM acted arbitrarily and capriciously in approving the project because the agency failed to closely examine the impacts on sage-grouse and pronghorn populations, which they claim , violated the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

But NEPA is a procedural law that requires the federal agency to consider all relevant factors and articulate a legitimate connection between the facts and the final decision. It does not dictate an outcome, and the judge concluded that the BLM had done a thorough job of presenting the relevant information and linking it to its decision. As Skavdahl wrote in the decision, “NEPA does not mandate certain outcomes, but the petitioners only challenge the substance of the decision.”

Twice in his 47-page ruling, Skavdahl cited a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision that noted that NEPA prohibited “uninformed” rather than “reckless” actions. It is worth examining exactly what the Supreme Court said in this case. He said, “Other laws may impose substantial environmental obligations on federal agencies, but NEPA simply prohibits agency actions that are uninformed—rather than reckless.”

This Supreme Court ruling stated that “it is now well established that NEPA itself does not mandate particular outcomes, but merely prescribes the necessary process.” Because the BLM had done a thorough job in disclosing the potential environmental impacts of the NPL project, its decision withstood legal challenge, consistent with the 1989 Supreme Court ruling that “if the adverse environmental effects of the proposed action are properly identified and assessed, the agency is not constrained by NEPA to decide that other values ​​outweigh environmental costs.

Unlike federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act that mandate certain outcomes such as those that strongly favor the protection of federally protected species and their habitats, NEPA has no such requirement. Thus, the federal agency is able to weigh other factors or values ​​in making its decision.

Skavdahl’s decision explicitly recognizes Wyoming’s jurisdiction over wildlife in the project area by stating, “The State of Wyoming effectively owns the pronghorn and sage-grouse species (as it does all wildlife) in the NPL project area.” And it should be noted that the State of Wyoming had defended the BLM’s decision on the NPL project in legal arguments in court in Skavhahl.

Although the BLM has determined that there may indeed be wildlife loss and habitat degradation in the NPL project area, it has also set out a series of development restrictions, stipulations and mitigations. that the agency can impose as development progresses.

Factors other than wildlife

When releasing its decision record for the NPL project in 2018, the BLM noted the country’s goal of energy independence and that “the NPL project could unlock up to 7 trillion cubic feet (TCF ) of natural gas and between 17.5 and 140 million barrels of oil over the 40-year life of the project.

The proposed project could also create approximately 950 jobs during the development phase and generate $17.85 billion in total project revenue with federal royalties of approximately $2.2 billion, including approximately $1.1 billion in dollars would go to the state of Wyoming.

The agency said it had selected the development alternative which it believed best addressed the concerns “associated with conserving a wide range of resource values ​​and concentrating development in the least environmentally sensitive”.

As Skavdahl noted in the court ruling, the BLM’s decision “was the best choice to avoid and reduce environmental and sensitive wildlife impacts while enabling the recovery of natural gas resources” and “Jonah Energy is allowed to proceed on the NPL project only by complying with a long list of resource protection measures…”

After more than a decade of planning and four years of litigation in the federal court system, Skavdahl’s decision sets the stage for NPL to finally come to fruition – if Jonah Energy decides when the time is right to proceed.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the beach in Sublette County, Wyoming. His column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

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Denise W. Whigham