Undeveloped areas will be largely off-limits to industrial-scale energy projects — be they fossil fuels, trona, hard minerals, wind, solar or a combination — under the Bureau of Land Management’s preferred “conservation” scenario for managing 3.5 million acres of federal land in southwest Wyoming, some observers say.
That’s primarily because the BLM’s conservation priority spelled out in “Alternative B” — one of four management scenarios in the Rock Springs draft environmental impact statement guiding its resource management plan — would vastly expand “exclusion areas” for rights-of-way, hampering greenfield development for projects that require new roads, pipelines and electric transmission lines.
Nearly 2.5 million acres — 71% of the planning area — would be excluded from consideration for new rights-of-way. That’s a 481% increase in acreage off-limits to things like maintained roads, power lines and pipelines. BLM officials say it’s also a means to inhibit permanent industrial facilities in other areas — a state-owned land section, for example — because they typically require infrastructure like power lines and pipelines.
“Conservation, that’s what’s driving that particular alternative,” Wyoming BLM spokesman Brad Purdy told WyoFile. “So there would be less development overall.
“Rights-of-way,” Purdy continued, “that’s how we [permit] solar. It’s how we do roads, how we do power lines. I think all of those types of things would be impacted.”
The proposed rights-of-way exclusion areas take into account conservation values weighed against “marginal” energy yield opportunities in yet-to-be-developed areas, according to the BLM. Legislative leaders, however, say it’s another example of the agency’s failure to find a balance that doesn’t harm Wyoming’s “bedrock industries.”
The BLM’s preferred conservation plan places “the interests of the people of this state in peril” and ought to be removed from consideration, Senate President Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) and House Speaker Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) wrote in a Sept. 28 letter to BLM Rock Springs Field Office Manager Kimberlee Foster.
They’re also asking for a 120-day extension for public comments. Currently, the deadline to submit comments on the draft EIS is Nov. 16.
Gov. Mark Gordon has called for a “complete withdrawal” of the draft environmental document, describing the BLM’s proposal as a “federal fiat.”
Meantime, BLM officials say whatever the agency puts forward as its preferred alternative in the final draft early next year will likely be modified.
“I’m going to beat the drum,” Purdy said. “The range of [all four] alternatives is going to remain on the table throughout the entire process. If you think when you open up that final [EIS] in several months and it’s just going to be [Alternative B] again, I don’t think the public comment is really going to allow that to happen.”
Conservation vs. industrial expansion
A close examination of where the 2.5 million acres of rights-of-way exclusion areas are drawn suggests a recognition of marginal development opportunities, particularly for wind, solar and geothermal energy, according to Wyoming Outdoor Council Energy and Climate Policy Director John Burrows.
There are simply higher-value wind resources in other areas of the state, Burrows said, while the preferred alternative still allows for adequate growth in both wind and solar development where industrial infrastructure already exists — primarily along the Interstate 80 corridor. The proposed exclusion areas, he noted, mostly encompass large areas of the northern and southern portions of the management area, where there’s little to no existing industrial infrastructure.
“The BLM’s preferred alternative keeps just under 1 million acres of land open and available to wind and solar leasing,” Burrows said. “In our assessment, this is more than adequate to give future opportunities for responsibly sited renewable development while also protecting the truly outstanding wildlife habitat, wide-open spaces, cultural resources and other values across the planning area.”
Industrial-sized carbon management projects such as the Sweetwater Carbon Storage Hub, which would pump and store carbon dioxide deep underground, and Project Bison, which would pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in what’s referred to as “direct air capture,” are located just outside the BLM’s Rock Springs Field Office management area. However, those projects require pipelines, power lines and other infrastructure that may need rights-of-way approval from the BLM in the Rock Springs management area.
For example, the Sweetwater Carbon Storage Hub partnership will rely on constructing facilities to collect carbon dioxide from multiple existing trona mining facilities near Green River and pipe it to injection sites near Granger.
Trona, oil and natural gas
The BLM’s preferred conservation alternative would also further restrict potential expansions of trona mining and, especially, oil and natural gas development due to the proposed growth of rights-of-way exclusion areas and myriad wildlife habitat projections.
It would “increase the level of impacts to trona development and could result in further reduction of trona extracted via mining activities,” according to the draft EIS. It would also result in a 73% drop in projected federal oil and gas drilling over the next 20 years “due to an increase in areas that are closed to fluid mineral leasing and managed with [no surface occupancy] stipulations.”
“No surface occupancy,” in federal land management terms, refers to restricting industrial activities on specifically designated lands. It does not restrict human presence for recreation, hunting or other non-industrial activities.
Most rights-of-way approvals in the Rock Springs management area, according to the BLM, have been related to oil and natural gas development. Conservation advocates note that nearly half of the 3.5 million acre management area has already been leased to the oil and gas industry, arguing that what remains undeveloped provides marginal prospects for oil and gas yields.
“We have significant concerns about the current [preferred] plan as it stands,” Petroleum Association of Wyoming Vice President and Director of Communications Ryan McConnaughey said.
“The Pinedale Anticline in Sublette County was viewed as low potential before it wasn’t, and it became the largest natural gas field in the country,” McConnaughey said, referring to the revolutionary advancement of hydraulic fracking in the early 2000s.
Technological advances also allow the industry to have a shrinking footprint on the landscape, McConnaughey said, but the myriad restrictions that would result in “no surface occupancy” under the BLM’s preferred management plant go too far.
Despite BLM’s assurances that it will be responsive to “substantive” public comments and likely put forth a modified preferred alternative, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming has its doubts.
“There could be changes that come out in the final [draft],” McConnaughey said. “But we’re looking at this and the fact that this is where they’re starting from.
“And, clearly,” he continued, “their preferred alternative, from their own admission, would cut economic output in the field office by over half.”
For now, comments on the draft RMP are due Nov. 16. Whether the BLM extends the public comment period is up to officials at the agency’s headquarters in Washington.