Hiawatha not done

Questar asks permission to expand drilling

— The gas reserves located in the Hiawatha region of northern Moffat County and southern Sweetwater County, Wyo., are not done, said Vincent Rigatti, Questar Exploration Legacy Division general manager.

Under its former name, Mountain Fuel Supply Co., Questar found and drilled the area's first natural gas well in 1927. Since then, Rigatti said, about 1 trillion cubic feet of gas have been extracted.

More resources lay under the ground, yet, he added.

"It's still producing," Rigatti said. "It's still a very important area."

With that in mind, Questar proposed a plan to the Bureau of Land Management in December 2005 that would allow for 4,208 more natural gas wells across 157,361 acres. About one-third of the plan's proposed wells are in Moffat County, with the other two-thirds in Wyoming.

"The wells are anticipated to be drilled during an estimated 30-year period after project approval with as many as 200 wells possibly drilled each year," according to a BLM press release dated September 2006.

The project would include in-fill operations, meaning companies would drill between current wells, as well as new wells outside the current area of operations, Rigatti said.

Government process

To address Questar's plan, BLM began writing a new Hiawatha Regional Energy Development Environmental Impact Statement.

That document, which still is in the discussion stages, will govern how many additional wells companies can drill in the area and what wildlife and public health regulations will apply.

The BLM Rock Springs Field Office in Sweetwater County, Wyo., is heading the plan because the majority of land concerned is in its jurisdiction.

The BLM Little Snake office, which Moffat County falls into, is assisting with the plan.

In the Impact Statement so far, the BLM has investigated different alternatives ranging from the maximum number proposed in Questar's plan to no new drilling activity.

The alternative for Questar's proposed action includes the maximum number of 4,208 additional wells.

The "no action" alternative, which limits drilling to current approved plans, allows for 16 additional wells in Wyoming provided for in previous plans. Moffat County would be subject to the Little Snake Resource Management Plan, which currently allows for about 500 more gas wells in the area.

However, the BLM is in the process of writing a new Resource Management Plan for the Little Snake area, which would take precedence over the Hiawatha Impact Statement.

BLM officials are working together to make sure the Hiawatha Impact Statement and the coming Management Plan allow for the same number of wells, said Jeremy Casterson, planning and environmental coordinator for the BLM Little Snake Field Office in Craig.

"That's why we want to make sure the two harmonize," Casterson said. "We don't want to change the rules."

At this time, the BLM expects to release a draft Impact Statement this summer, Casterson said.

A 60-day public comment period will follow the draft's release, Casterson said, adding the draft document will include the BLM's preferred alternative.

"We do that to help the public center their comments on the preferred alternative and they know what we're leaning toward," Casterson said.

Because of the project's large scale, Questar opted to ask the BLM for an a governing plan in the Impact Statement that would cover all area development, Rigatti said.

If the BLM approves the Impact Statement and allows further drilling, guidelines for drilling applications would be streamlined along the Impact Statement's guidelines, Casterson said.

He added that every drilling application still would go through the normal approval process and would be subject to any and all operating standards outlined in the Hiawatha Impact Statement and the Little Snake Resource Management Plan.

Government input

BLM, as it always does when drafting a regulatory document, is involving cooperating agencies in the process, Casterson said.

Authorities such as the Moffat County Commission and Wyoming state agencies are giving suggestions to BLM officials now concerning the plan.

"Hiawatha has been a big part of the economy here for a long time," said Jeff Comstock, Moffat County Natural Resources Department director. "We just have to balance the economics with the wildlife and other things that are out there. It's important we strive to keep that balance."

The BLM has the same concern, said John MacDonald, acting field manager for the BLM Rock Springs office.

"Wildlife and air quality are probably going to be our top concern, and they have been since the beginning," MacDonald said

Wyoming state agencies seem to agree.

Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal's office sent a Wyoming cooperating state agencies proposal to MacDonald's office recently, suggesting an alternative allowing fewer than the maximum number of wells.

It's important to note that Freudenthal, a Democrat, has not endorsed any plan of action regarding the Hiawatha region, said Steve Furtney, the governor's natural resources policy advisor.

Several state agencies - including the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, Wyoming Wild Game and Fish Department, Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and Sweetwater County authorities - created the proposal, Furtney said.

"There's a lot of compromise that goes along with our state agencies," he said.

The proposal's chief aim was to expand the discussion, Furtney added. The BLM alternatives do not offer much choice between full-field development and no development, he said.

"What we tried to do is broaden the conversation," Furtney said. "We're trying to create some middle ground that we can consider when a final decision is made."

Before Moffat County takes a formal position on the plan, Comstock said, local officials asked BLM to conduct socioeconomic studies comparing the benefit of drilling activity against possible issues regarding wildlife and problems with more growth, such as traffic and demand on other local infrastructure.

"It's obvious to say that more wells means more money coming in," Comstock said. "The question is, does that money offset the wildlife element or the traffic element or the other concerns."

Collin Smith can be reached at 875-1794 or cesmith@craigdailypress.com

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