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Compromise rises and falls for drilling in Wyoming

PINEDALE, Wyo.—Flying above the most prolific natural gas field in the lower 48 states last summer, environmentalist Linda Baker looked at the spider web of drill sites spread out like an ugly but lucrative quilt.

Nearby, another gas-rich field was just starting to be drilled, but this time, Baker hoped, it would have fewer drill pads to disturb dwindling wildlife. In an unusual move, environmentalists and industry here had forged a compromise to allow drilling while also protecting the environment. Questar Exploration & Production Co. local general manager Ron Hogan described it this way: "We win. The government wins. The country wins. The wildlife wins."

The alliance excited Baker: "Here in the middle of the hottest gas field in the U.S., we have these two extremes juxtaposed right next to each other: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

Not anymore.

This rare compromise vanished in the seven months since Hurricane Katrina swept ashore some 2,255 miles away.

Katrina crippled America's major gas fields in the Gulf of Mexico. The Bush administration then asked the energy companies around the West, especially in Pinedale, to boost natural gas production. Questar made a proposal that was quickly accepted.

Suddenly there was more drilling in the winter, a time when rigs normally are shut down out of concern for the dwindling number of mule deer that winter here.

"At some point, someone in D.C. began the discussion of `we need to get more energy on line because we're in for a tough winter and the nation's in trouble,'" recalled Mary Flanderka, planning coordinator for the state of Wyoming. "What it did was it hurt the compromise."

The Bureau of Land Management showed that "they are not as interested in compromise," said Peter Aengst of The Wilderness Society, who'd helped forge the initial alliance.

Boise State University professor John Freemuth, the past chairman of the BLM Science Advisory Board, said: "It's not the first time these kind of things happen. BLM right now is pretty much under marching orders to produce."

Steven Hall, a spokesman for the BLM, said Pinedale was "one of the few places in the country where increasing natural gas production was feasible."

But the area is key for wintering mule deer, pronghorn antelope and sage grouse, biologists say.

"It's been a historical winter range that provides a wintering area for 5,000 to 6,000 deer, and they don't appear to have any other options or alternatives to them, so it's important to keep this (area) intact if we want to maintain pre-development numbers," said Hall Sawyer, a biologist hired by Questar to study mule deer. His study found that in four years, the mule deer population fell 46 percent and 1,029 acres of deer habitat were disturbed.

Because of the importance of the area for wildlife in the winter, restrictions have prevented much drilling in winter months. As part of their compromise, the environmentalists and Questar agreed to accept some winter drilling in exchange for fewer drilling pads throughout the area.

To do that Questar started instituting directional drilling, a more expensive process, so that instead of one well per pad, the company would eventually have up to 16 wells from a single pad.

Questar still plans to shoehorn 932 wells onto 61 pads over 15,000 acres, said Diana Hoff, who replaced the retired Hogan as Questar's general manager. The company also installed new technology that would eliminate 25,500 diesel truck trips a year around the gas field.

That impressed the Wilderness Society's Aengst, who said he and his national environmental group wanted to move away from filing lawsuits.

"That would have set a new precedent," Aengst said. "We've overemphasized historically the lawsuit tool."

Then Katrina hit. BLM may have made the initial inquiry about more drilling, but it was Questar that proposed to change the compromise, BLM spokesman Hall said.

"We didn't go full-bore; we didn't waive everything," said Roger Bankert, the BLM's Pinedale associate field director. "We gave them another rig and stuff."

Questar asked for four new winter pads, seven additional drilling rigs and the ability to complete 22 wells in the winter, according to BLM documents. BLM permitted one new pad, two new rigs and four completions. Questar actually only used three completions.

Those changes meant enough natural gas was produced in just those three months to heat 8,800 homes, Hoff said.

Questar's former environmental partners aren't talking only about compromise now.

"I think we'll be considering lawsuits," Aengst said.

Even the state of Wyoming wasn't pleased.

"Everyone's a little more cautious about the approach because they don't want to go in on good faith and have the rug pulled out from beneath them," Wyoming's Flanderka said. "The governor was disappointed ... but we're still trying."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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