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Happy Birthday, Tom Bell!

WOC_Tom_Bell

Tom Bell, founder of the Wyoming Outdoor Council and the High Country News, will turn 90 on April 12, 2014.

We join all of his friends and admirers in wishing Tom a happy birthday!

 

“I never hoped for my kids to be millionaires, but I hoped they would breathe clean air, drink clean water, and experience a state wild enough to foster freedom.”

—Tom Bell

 

 

Thank you, Tom, for all that you’ve done and sacrificed—not only for our state, but for our country.

We feel a great debt of gratitude for your life’s work. You have a heart bigger than Wyoming, an incorruptible character, and you changed the course of Wyoming history.

It’s a privilege to know you and to share your love of Wyoming and of the natural world!
 

Other posts of interest:

Origins of the Council: Tom Bell, founder

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Incredible Photo Exhibit: The Longest Mule Deer Migration

The Wyoming Migration Initiative is presenting an awe-inspiring photo exhibit, on display at the University of Wyoming Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center through April 25.

It depicts the longest mule deer migration ever documented—the extraordinary annual journey from the Red Desert to the Hoback!

The public is invited to a reception and presentation of the exhibit on April 22 from 5-9 p.m.

migration_reception_flyer

Other posts of interest:

Wild & Scenic Film Festival is Coming to Lander

Flashpoint: It’s Time to Reduce Waste and Pollution from Flaring

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Wild & Scenic Film Festival is Coming to Lander!

2014WSFFtour_poster_8.5x14_printREVClick this image to view a large, printable poster.

Films to Change Your World!

The Wild & Scenic Film Festival comes to Lander, April 25, 2014

 

The Wyoming Outdoor Council and Wild Iris Mountain Sports are hosting the Wild and Scenic Film Festival Tour on Friday, April 25, at the Pronghorn Lodge Monarch Hall Conference Center in Lander.

EVENT DETAILS:

Time and Date: Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and films start at 6:15 p.m., Friday, April 25, 2014

Location:  The Pronghorn Lodge Monarch Hall Conference Center, 150 East Main St, Lander, Wyoming

Advanced tickets:  Are available at a reduced price compared to the same-day door charge—and can be purchased in Lander starting April 1 at Wild Iris Mountain Sports at 166 Main Street, or at the Wyoming Outdoor Council office at 262 Lincoln Street.

Wild and Scenic on Tour

The Wild and Scenic Film Festival On Tour is a selection of films from the annual Wild and Scenic Film Festival held the third week of January in Nevada City, CA.

The Nevada City festival is a four-day event that features more than 100 award-winning films and more than 100 guest speakers, celebrities, and activists.

The national tour of the festival features selected films from the larger festival and goes out to more than 100 communities nationwide, including Lander.

“Films featured at Wild and Scenic give people a sense of place,” said Jenna Bregar, Wild and Scenic Film Festival tour manager. “In our busy lives, it’s easy to get disconnected from our role in the global ecosystem. When we realize that the change we need in this world begins with us we can start making a difference. Come watch and see!”

The tour venue in Lander will feature films about outdoor adventure, water and fish conservation, energy and climate change, as well as a few “just for fun” films.

Free Admission with a discounted first time Wyoming Outdoor Council membership of $15.

For more information contact: Linda Sisco, linda@wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org, 307-332-7031 x. 10

Ticket Prices for Advanced Purchases:

Adults $8;

Children 12 and under $4.

Ticket Prices at the Door:

Adults $10

Children 12 and under $5

Students $5 (includes a one-year Wyoming Outdoor Council membership!)

Tickets can be purchased in Lander starting April 1 at Wild Iris Mountain Sports at 166 Main Street or at the Wyoming Outdoor Council office at 262 Lincoln Street.

 

Click on an image below to see a gallery of the films!

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MEDIA STATEMENT: Wyoming State Supreme Court’s ruling in the fracking chemical disclosure case

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 12, 2014

Media contact: Lisa McGee, Wyoming Outdoor Council, 307.733.3845, lisa@wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org

Wyoming State Supreme Court’s ruling in the fracking chemical disclosure case is a good decision

“We are pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision,” said Lisa McGee, an attorney with the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “We believe the public has the right to know which chemicals are being injected underground during fracking, and we look forward to having the opportunity to further make this case in the district court.”

According to Wednesday’s decision, a company that wishes to keep fracking chemicals a secret has the burden of proof of showing that it meets the definition of a trade secret.

“This decision errs on the side of public disclosure, which we believe is the right decision.” McGee said.

The Wyoming State Supreme Court decision (S-13-0120) is available at: http://www.courts.state.wy.us/Opinions/2014WY37.pdf

Some background on the case

The Wyoming Outdoor Council, along with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, Earthworks, and the watchdog group OMB Watch, originally filed suit in March of 2012. We asked the court to require the state of Wyoming to disclose information about the chemicals used during the oil and gas development process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice filed the petition on behalf of our coalition.

We received an adverse—and we felt incorrect—ruling on this case from a district court in 2013 and we appealed to the Wyoming State Supreme Court in April of that year.

We argued that the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission should be required to reveal the identities of the chemicals that are pumped underground during fracking because Wyoming citizens and landowners have a right to know what chemicals are transported across the landscape, stored on or near their homes, and injected underground.

We argued that public disclosure is required by the Wyoming Public Records Act and the Commission’s 2010 disclosure rule pertaining to hydraulic fracturing chemicals.

It is our position that disclosure would help protect the people of Wyoming by allowing them to know what chemicals to test for in baseline water tests prior to fracking.

Under the 2010 regulations, Wyoming became the first state in the nation to require well operators to disclose the identities of chemicals that are mixed with water and sand and injected into the ground to break up rock during fracking.

But since the regulations were adopted, the Commission has approved more than 50 secrecy requests, shielding identifying information of more than 190 different chemicals that are being used by Halliburton and other oil and gas service companies in fracking.

“Wyoming’s groundbreaking fracking chemical disclosure rule amounts to very little if companies can shield information as ‘trade secrets’ nearly at will,” said Earthjustice attorney Laura Beaton, at the time of the appeal. “We are asking the Wyoming Supreme Court to enforce the broad public disclosure mandate of the Public Records Act and the fracking chemical disclosure rule.”

We argued that when it comes to fracking chemicals and the potential harm to people and groundwater sources, the interests of public health and the public good far outweigh the interests of protecting companies’ so-called trade secrets.

“Groundwater belongs to the people of Wyoming,” said Bruce Pendery, chief legal counsel with the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “While water rights can be granted for its use, we all have an interest — and a responsibility — to ensure that groundwater is protected and kept clean not only for those of us living here today but for the people who might need it after we’re gone.”

Thankfully, today’s ruling errs on the side of public disclosure and gives the district court good guidance for rehearing the case. We’re looking forward to the opportunity to achieve better transparency and advocate the public’s right to know under this new guidance.

Other posts of interest:

Orphaned Wells: Dealing With Unseen Threats to Wyoming’s Groundwater

Flashpoint: It’s Time to Reduce Waste and Pollution from Flaring

MEDIA RELEASE: New Wyoming Groundwater Rule Approved

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Wrapping up the 2014 legislative session

WOC Legislative Session 2014

By Richard Garrett, Jr.

The Wyoming Outdoor Council has one core objective during every session of the State Legislature: to support actions that will improve and protect Wyoming’s air, water, wildlife, and quality of life—and at the same time work to modify or discourage legislation that would threaten these values.

It is this simple premise that underpins all of our efforts in Cheyenne. We apply this principle as we analyze every bill that the Legislature considers.

In recent years, the Outdoor Council has worked hard to cultivate and carry out a collaborative and respectful approach to advocacy—both in terms of the rhetoric we use and the way we conduct our interpersonal communications with legislators—as a way to earn greater success with companion groups and organizations, interested citizens, legislators, and the governor. We believe that this approach best serves our members and our mission.

By my estimate, this session was one of our most successful ever. Our board members engaged directly with the legislative process and found time to host a reception early in the session, too. Meanwhile our members played a critical role in one of the most important bills that the Legislature considered—a proposed measure to improve the funding model for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (details below).

And finally, we had the opportunity to work in coordination with other organizations, some of which are not typically engaged in the lawmaking process.

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead signs the the large project funding measure for Wyoming's Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust on Thursday, March 6, 2014.

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead signs the the large project funding measure for Wyoming’s Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust on Thursday, March 6, 2014.

Bills we supported

This year—the Wyoming State Legislature’s 62nd session—we identified no fewer than two dozen bills that deserved our close attention.

One of the most important bills of the session was the funding measure for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. You can read more about that bill here.

We are happy to report that Governor Matt Mead signed this bill into law on Thursday.

This bill’s success is particularly noteworthy in that we collaborated with many others for its passage, we worked to ensure that it wasn’t amended, and we engaged you, our members, and our board, in the process. The bill gained momentum throughout the session in no small part because of our collective efforts.

We also worked hard for the passage of the large project funding measure for Wyoming’s Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust. The important projects and easements that this bill approves, which are paid for via the trust, will restore habitat, revitalize riparian areas, remove invasive species, and preserve thousands of acres of important open space from development. The Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust is one of the best tools available to the state to protect the greater sage-grouse and help keep it from the brink of extinction.

We will continue to encourage the Legislature in years to come to fully fund the corpus of the trust.

Another bill that the Outdoor Council endorsed was the formalization of the Sage-Grouse Implementation Team, which is a fundamental component of the governor’s executive order for the protection of sage-grouse. We helped achieve inclusion of two members from the conservation and sportsman communities on the team.

Bills and resolutions we opposed, or sought to improve

During this session, the Legislature faced the question of whether to continue to fund an effort where state lawmakers would actively pursue, as they have during the previous two interim sessions, the “transfer of public lands”—that is, they would work to achieve an outcome where the state of Wyoming would somehow wrest control of federal lands and minerals within its borders—in what some have called the Sagebrush Rebellion, or the Sagebrush Rebellion redux.

We followed this bill through the legislative process and managed to help convince the members of the Senate’s Minerals, Business, and Economic Development committee to vote 3-2 against the bill.

Success seemed short-lived though when the House gutted another bill that had already passed the Senate and inserted the language of the bill that the Senate Minerals Committee had voted down. This meant that the bill had to go to a special committee of six legislators to resolve the differences between the two versions.

We were able to successfully engage with the committee and moderate the bill in a way that will reduce the Federal Natural Resource Management Committee’s focus on the so-called transfer of public lands.

Though this is a modest accomplishment, it’s also an important one because the legislative process is mostly incremental and in this case the Legislature seems to be moving in a more reasonable direction. (And I am particularly grateful to our board member, Terry Jones, for working in Cheyenne on this issue.)

The Council worked against passage of bills and a resolution that will add funding to the state’s attorney general’s office to support its legal battles with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Many of our board members helped in this effort early in the session and although one of the bills passed, we were able to use the process to remind legislators of the destructive consequences of climate change and the critical role that the EPA plays in trying to combat it.

Even though Senate File 75 and SJ 1 passed, it is uncertain that the attorney general needs or will use the funds allocated. And members can be assured that we will pay close attention to what the state may (or may not do) in terms of trying to hamper the EPA.

Looking ahead

I’m proud that throughout this session we were able to engage, once again, in a respectful and productive way with legislators on a broad range of issues, including the important issue of climate change.

Just yesterday, Senator Jim Anderson (Senate District 2) approached me and, without prompting, said that the Wyoming Outdoor Council is of vital importance to the state and its legislative process. He personally thanked me for our collaborative approach and our tireless efforts to make sure that with balance, Wyoming’s environment is safe for future generations.

Thank you to our members, supporters, board, staff, friends, and other organizations for giving me the chance to work with you and on behalf of Wyoming’s environment and quality of life. I am looking forward eagerly to the interim committee activities and the next phase of the process.

Contact: Richard Garrett, energy policy analyst and legislative advocate, Wyoming Outdoor Council. 307.332.7031 x18, richard@wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org

Other posts of interest:

The View from Cheyenne—How a bill becomes a law

Orphaned Wells: Dealing With Unseen Threats to Wyoming’s Groundwater

Flashpoint: It’s Time to Reduce Waste and Pollution from Flaring

MEDIA RELEASE: New Wyoming Groundwater Rule Approved

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Game and Fish Funding Bill Passes, Heads to Governor’s Desk

WOC Legislative Session 2014

By Richard Garrett, Jr.

With Friday’s vote in the Wyoming House of Representatives, Senate File 45—a bill intended to help the Wyoming Game and Fish Department achieve a better funding model—is now headed to Governor Matt Mead’s desk for his signature.

If signed into law, this stopgap bill will provide the Legislature an opportunity in its next budget session to shift the burden of employee benefits and grizzly bear management away from hunters and anglers and into the general fund.

This would not only create an important opportunity to change the way employee benefits are funded—but it could also help the agency avoid more cutbacks and further reductions in programs, services, and wildlife management.

And if the Legislature exercises this option in two years, it would bring the Game in Fish Department in line with the way many other state agencies pay for similar employee benefits.

This is an important bill for many reasons, but particularly since the Legislature has failed in each of the last two sessions to authorize the department to increase license fees.

We are grateful to all of our members and friends for your support of this bill. We note that the final vote achieved at least nine more favorable votes than it did on introduction—this is proof that our advocacy (together with that of others) not only helped the bill pass but did so with room to spare.

Stay tuned for additional developments and in particular the time and date of the governor’s signature . . . if there is sufficient notice, perhaps you can make it to Cheyenne for the signing!

And as always, if you have any questions or expect to be in Cheyenne, please be in touch. It would be an honor to have you join me in advocating on behalf of all of our members in Wyoming’s capitol.

Contact: Richard Garrett, energy policy analyst and legislative advocate, Wyoming Outdoor Council. 307.332.7031 x18, richard@wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org

Other posts of interest:

The View from Cheyenne—How a bill becomes a law

Orphaned Wells: Dealing With Unseen Threats to Wyoming’s Groundwater

Flashpoint: It’s Time to Reduce Waste and Pollution from Flaring

MEDIA RELEASE: New Wyoming Groundwater Rule Approved

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The Legislative Session—Halfway Through and By the Numbers

Including One bill—Senate File 45—that needs your support

WOC Legislative Session 2014

By Richard Garrett, Jr.

The Wyoming State Legislature continues to trundle through its month-long 62nd assembly—this one a condensed, biennial budget session, which will establish the state budget for 2015-2016.

Nearly 300 bills this year

By the end of the first week, legislators had introduced 297 bills (179 in the House, 118 in the Senate) and seven resolutions (five in the House, two in the Senate).

Taken together this is an average of nearly 3 ½ bills or resolutions per legislator. And remember, most of the bills are co-sponsored, which further inflates the average bills per legislator.

On the other hand, some legislators seldom—if ever—introduce legislation. I’ve heard more than one say that introducing legislation is not their job, and more importantly it’s not what their constituents want.

Closely following 22 bills

As of February 25, 123 bills have already died and more will surely die in the days to come. Not one bill has yet made it to the governor’s desk.

The Wyoming Outdoor Council, at the outset, identified 22 bills and resolutions to follow closely during the session (about 7 percent of all of those proposed). Of the 22, five have either failed introduction or not received the votes necessary to move through either the standing committee or Committee of the Whole.

One bill that needs your support

One of the most important issues that we are working to influence during the session (as we did during the 2013 interim) is improved funding for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

During the interim, the joint Travel, Recreation and Wildlife committee endorsed two bills that if passed would help the agency better fulfill its obligation to manage all of Wyoming’s wildlife.

One of those bills, Senate File 45 (SF 45) Game and Fish Department, general fund requests, is still in play.

If successful this bill will shift the funding of employee benefits and grizzly bear management away from hunters and anglers and into the general fund. Taken together, this general fund request will total about $6 million annually.

This is an important bill for many reasons, but particularly since the Legislature has failed in each of the last two sessions to authorize the department to increase license fees.

Why we need to better fund the Game and Fish Department

The well-being of Wyoming’s wildlife is fundamental to our quality of life; we have a profound cultural ethic of responsible stewardship and wildlife management.

Additionally, our big game animals, birds, fish, and other species—and all the recreational opportunities they provide—help bring in more than $1.1 billion to Wyoming’s economy annually and contribute significantly to the state’s $3.1 billion annual tourism industry.

Governor Mead said it best in his state of the state address: “We must recognize the value of game and fish not only to sportsmen but to each of us. If Wyoming wildlife is worth the watching, it is worth the supporting.”

Instead of allowing the Game and Fish Department to raise its license fees in recent years—a move that a broad range of hunters and anglers groups supported—the Legislature directed the Game and Fish Department to reduce expenses, streamline its efficiency, limit or eliminate programs, and trim staff.

The department has been responsive to each of these directions. Its budget is now down by about $6 million dollars annually.

Unfortunately these cutbacks have also meant reduced hunter access, reductions in the fish stocking program, and the loss of important human resources for the management of wildlife in Wyoming.

Senate File 45 will be heard three times in the House of Representatives over the next few days.

We hope that you will show your support for the bill, your support for science-based wildlife management, and your support for our mission by calling your representative and asking for a positive vote on SF 45.

Some ideas you might consider expressing:

  • As a constituent, it is important to you that the Game and Fish Department be well funded.
  • Wyoming’s wildlife resources are unique in the lower 48 states, and we should do everything we can to keep things that way.
  • Our state’s wildlife is essential to our economy, our natural heritage, and our way of life—our wildlife must continue to be professionally managed.
  • Wyoming’s wildlife helps bring in more than $1.1 billion to Wyoming’s economy annually and contributes significantly to the state’s $3.1 billion annual tourism industry.
  • The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has streamlined its operation, managed costs, and trimmed personnel.
  • Because of inflation, the department has suffered a 13 percent reduction in funding over the last five years.
  • The Legislature has a great opportunity this year to take a step toward getting the Game and Fish Department’s funding back on track. Although this is a stopgap measure, it will give legislators (and their constituents) the opportunity to more carefully consider license fees in a non-election year.

Click one of the following links to locate your representative: Representative Locator or Legislator Information.

And as always, if you have any questions or expect to be in Cheyenne, please be in touch. It would be an honor to have you join me in advocating on behalf of all of our members in Wyoming’s capitol.

Contact: Richard Garrett, energy policy analyst and legislative advocate, Wyoming Outdoor Council. 307.332.7031 x18, richard@wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org

Other posts of interest:

The View from Cheyenne—How a bill becomes a law

Orphaned Wells: Dealing With Unseen Threats to Wyoming’s Groundwater

Flashpoint: It’s Time to Reduce Waste and Pollution from Flaring

MEDIA RELEASE: New Wyoming Groundwater Rule Approved

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Update: The Final Shoshone Forest Plan

Skiing 029-scaled-465x310Photo by Jeff Vanuga

 

By Lisa McGee, program director

Dear members and supporters,

The U.S. Forest Service has released its final revised Shoshone forest plan, a document that will guide management of the country’s first national forest for 20 years or longer.

Although the agency is calling the plan “final,” in reality, there is still an opportunity for us to help improve it before it is published as a record of decision.

As many readers know, the Wyoming Outdoor Council has consistently engaged in this plan revision process for the better part of a decade with the overarching goal of protecting the wild, backcountry character of the Shoshone.

Specifically, we have focused our efforts on safeguarding the forest from future industrial oil and gas development.

The Shoshone has very little acreage currently leased for oil and gas development and there are no active oil and gas wells on the forest. We seek to keep it that way. There are many places where oil and gas development is appropriate. The Shoshone National Forest is not one of them.

We are pleased that the final plan reduces the amount of land where oil and gas surface disturbance can occur by 84 percent: down to 129,000 acres total from roughly 800,000 available in the previous plan.

This change is important because it ensures greater compatibility with the management of adjacent BLM and tribal lands. It also safeguards open space and wildlife habitat on the forest’s front country lands, maintaining recreational access and contributing to the high quality of life that people in surrounding communities enjoy.

Thanks to our members, concerned citizens, tribal leaders, local government officials, and Governor Matt Mead for supporting this change.

One area that can and should be improved

Although the plan’s direction for future oil and gas development is great news, there’s one facet of the plan we think can be improved.

Even though the Shoshone has incredible potential wilderness areas, the Forest Service chose not to recommend any new wilderness areas in its final plan.

The Forest Service’s own evaluation highlighted the four highest quality backcountry areas on the Shoshone: Wood River, Francs Peak, Trout Creek, and the Dunoir.

Short of a wilderness recommendation, we urged the Forest Service to achieve a good compromise: to protect the wilderness character of these areas by managing them for backcountry, non-motorized use.

The final forest plan, however, as written recommends no new wilderness and allows expanded motorized use in two of the four highest quality areas: Francs Peak and Wood River. We are seeking to change this.

Specifics on what we’re seeking

We are asking the Forest Service to either recommend some or all of these four backcountry areas as wilderness or to return to the sound compromise it outlined in its draft preferred alternative: namely, the year-round, non-motorized prescription, and in the case of the Dunoir, a non-motorized and non-mechanized management prescription.

Such a decision would help ensure the backcountry character of the Shoshone is retained and improved over the life of this new plan.

Next steps

Concerned citizens who have already participated in the plan revision process can file objections by March 24.

The Outdoor Council will object to the proposed management of three of the highest quality backcountry areas, and we are hopeful that we will see some important improvements.

The Shoshone National Forest is hosting public open houses in communities around the forest next week.

If you are interested in learning more, please consider attending. The schedule is below.

They will each begin at 5 p.m. and end at 7 p.m.

  • Monday, Feb 24, Cody (Park County Library) 
  • Tuesday, Feb. 25, Dubois (Headwaters Center)
  • Wednesday, Feb. 26 Lander (Pronghorn Lodge)
  • Thursday, Feb. 27 Thermopolis (Big Horn Federal Bank)

Thank you for your years of support for our work to keep the Shoshone wild!

Other posts of interest:

The View from Cheyenne—How a bill becomes a law

Orphaned Wells: Dealing With Unseen Threats to Wyoming’s Groundwater

Flashpoint: It’s Time to Reduce Waste and Pollution from Flaring

MEDIA RELEASE: New Wyoming Groundwater Rule Approved

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Orphaned Wells: Dealing With Unseen Threats to Wyoming’s Groundwater

 

By Amber Wilson, environmental quality coordinator
Amber Wilson, environmental quality coordinator

Exploring for oil and natural gas is a tough and competitive business, one with many risks.

It can cost a company $10 million or more to drill and hydraulically fracture a well in Wyoming, with no guarantee of any returns on that investment. And there are risks to the environment, too—including the potential contamination of water resources.

The life cycle of an oil or natural gas well includes three primary phases: drilling, production, and plugging. Normally a production company will set aside adequate funding for the costs associated with plugging, which is to say filling the entire well bore (often measured in thousands of feet) with cement.

If a company fails to plug its wells, it will forfeit a bond that it posted with the state prior to production. That bond is intended to provide the money necessary for the state to plug the wells. Unfortunately, the bond is often not enough to cover the cost and the wells go unplugged. And an open well bore creates the risk of groundwater contamination.

Properly plugging a well before abandonment is necessary to protect groundwater—it prevents leaving behind an open conduit that could serve as a path for contaminants to get into groundwater.

What we mean by orphaned wells

When an operator doesn’t take responsibility for plugging a well, it becomes known as an orphaned well. At present there are more than 1,200 orphaned coalbed methane wells on state and private minerals in Wyoming, most of which are in the Powder River Basin. Anywhere between 1,000 and 4,500 additional coalbed methane wells could become orphaned in the coming months.

The state is required to find funding and resources to plug these orphaned wells. Not surprisingly, plugging a production well comes with an expensive price tag. The cost can vary widely, but it’s never cheap. An average cost of $10/foot adds up quickly when a well bore is thousands of feet deep.

Bonds, then, are essentially intended to be insurance policies for reclamation and cleanup at well sites. Often companies will pay what’s called a blanket bond of $75,000 to the Oil and Gas Commission, which can cover more than one well. But the problem is, at today’s costs, $75,000 is only enough, on average, to pay for the plugging of approximately 7,500 cumulative feet of well depth. It’s not unheard of for a single oil or gas well in Wyoming to have that depth.

And after paying a blanket bond of $75,000, a company can drill a number of wells with cumulative depths adding up to much more than 7,500 feet—say 100,000 feet—without paying additional bonds as long as those wells are producing.

It isn’t until a company temporarily removes any of those wells from production without plugging them (called “idling” the well) that the Oil and Gas Commission asks for additional idle well bonds. These additional bonds are requested partially because the longer a well is idled, no longer generating income for the company (or revenue for the State), the commission must hedge against the risk that the company won’t have the funding to eventually plug the well.

Too often, operators fail to plug their wells, some filing bankruptcy before they complete payment of the additional bonds they owe the state. This leaves Wyoming with the responsibility not just to plug those orphaned wells, but also to find the additional funding to get it done.

Why orphaned wells are a problem

The longer orphaned wells remain unplugged, the greater the environmental risk. Well casings weaken with age. Any contaminants—such as high-pressure chemicals and gases from nearby unconventional well operations—that find their way into the unplugged wellbore will have direct access to any exposed, intersected aquifers.

There are additional risks: accidental surface spills can also occur from unplugged wells. Operators hydraulically fracturing new wells—an operation that involves injecting water, sand, and chemicals at very high pressure underground to break up tight rock formations—can inadvertently send those chemicals and/or gases up an orphaned well to the surface.

Until recently, the state has not aggressively addressed these problems—only 183 orphaned wells have been plugged since 2004. Recently however, Governor Matt Mead’s administration, in recognition of the severity of the risk and as an initiative within his Energy Strategy, proposed a plan for plugging Wyoming’s orphaned gas wells.

The plan, if adopted, requires the Legislature, the Office of State Lands and Investments, and the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to take action to plug the state’s orphaned gas wells over the course of the next four years.

In the plan, the governor has requested a budget authorization from the Oil and Gas Commission’s account of an additional $3 million (versus the typical authorization of an additional $1 million) to work in conjunction with forfeited operator bonds to fund the plugging program.

The cost and how to pay for it

It is important to note that the Oil and Gas Commission’s account is not funded by taxpayer money.

The account generally holds funds acquired from (1) the conservation tax (paid by operators on each barrel of oil and thousand cubic feet of gas produced for sale); (2) bonds held by the Commission that will be returned to operators once they have properly plugged their wells; and (3) forfeited bonds from those operators who have orphaned their wells, which can only be used on the specific wells for which those bonds were paid.

Governor Mead’s office estimates the cost for plugging the 1,220 currently orphaned coalbed natural gas wells to be around $7.7 million. Add to that 912 wells that were drilled by Luca/Patriot—a company in the midst of bankruptcy—and the anticipated total orphaned well count climbs to 2,132, with an estimated cost to the state of more than $13 million. Luca currently has $3.2 million bonded, which the governor’s office estimates is approximately $2 million short of what those 912 wells will cost to plug.

There are additionally 2,270 coalbed methane wells “of concern”—belonging to companies currently out of compliance in some form with the Oil and Gas Commission. Should these companies also choose to walk away, the governor’s office estimates the total cost of plugging orphaned gas wells to reach approximately $32 million.

The bonding and the additional $3 million that the governor is calling for should cover—or go a long way toward covering—the existing 1,200 orphaned wells. So the governor’s plan is certainly a good down payment on this very important issue. But additional funding in the future will likely be needed to cover the total cost if more wells are orphaned, as expected.

Additional measures must be taken to ensure the necessary funds are available to address the whole problem. And we believe this should be accomplished while continuing to keep the state’s general fund off the table.

Industry must step up to the plate to cover these costs. This is something the Petroleum Association of Wyoming has spoken favorably of doing through an increase in the conservation tax—and something the Outdoor Council supports.

And to prevent this from happening in the future, we are urging state regulators to see to it that operators are required to post adequate bonds prior to development to ensure the state does not continue to be short-changed on plugging and reclamation costs.

It is also important to note that the governor’s plan only considers orphaned coalbed methane wells, but the state has other types of orphaned oil and gas wells and they also need to be plugged to safeguard our groundwater.

A plan for the future

Orphaned wells are a longstanding problem in Wyoming. If fully implemented, the governor’s plan can begin to solve the problems of the past, but what do we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?

The boom/bust cycle of commodity development has often left the state vulnerable to economic and environmental risks imposed by the developers who might be here one day and gone the next.

We believe the state can more effectively mitigate its risk in the future by implementing sound bonding regulations that both fully account for the actual cost to plug wells and also include an additional labor charge—enough to incentivize operators to plug their wells and have their bonds returned rather than leaving it up to the state.

We encourage the state to consider increasing the cost of a bond on a per-foot basis and apply that cost in its calculation for bonding requirements prior to development. For example, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission could require an operator to report all anticipated well depths in a development and use the sum of the depths to increase (or even refund a portion of) the bond. By charging a bond that meets and slightly exceeds the actual cost of well plugging, operators will have incentive to plug wells at a lower cost themselves.

A reformed bonding regulation, if properly administered, could sharply reduce the number of orphaned wells in our state. A fair, equitable system of bonding regulation—one regularly updated to reflect new costs, techniques, and technologies—will benefit operators, the state’s economy, and Wyoming’s water resources now and for future generations.

Other posts of interest:

The View from Cheyenne—How a bill becomes a law

Come to Our Cheyenne Reception on February 14!

Flashpoint: It’s Time to Reduce Waste and Pollution from Flaring

MEDIA RELEASE: New Wyoming Groundwater Rule Approved

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