Explosive decision 

Drilling in wilderness wins quick go-ahead

Dewitt Morris, president of Green River Energy Resources, has a lot on his plate. His Las Vegas-based company is moving forward June 1 with what critics say is one of the most controversial oil and gas exploration projects in southwestern Montana.

“I’m actually in Washington, D.C., right now meeting with BLM [Bureau of Land Management] and Forest Service officials talking about this very issue,” Morris says by phone, declining to go into detail. “It’s a really sensitive issue,” he adds.

Sensitive, indeed. At stake is seismic testing on some 26 miles of state and federal wildlands in and around the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and the Tendoy Mountains. Sparking intense criticism from conservation and wildlife groups, the BLM this spring granted the project a “categorical exclusion” from the stringent environmental reviews normally required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The U.S. Forest Service says it will also grant an exclusion. As a result, critics say a pristine wilderness area and recreation spot will be turned into an industrial construction site.

“A project of this size and magnitude merited a more in-depth environmental analysis than a categorical exclusion,” argues Patricia Dowd, conservation coordinator for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

NEPA provisions typically demand comprehensive environmental and wildlife impact assessments before oil and gas exploration projects can proceed on federal lands. As the public interest law firm Earthjustice puts it, “The long standing standard for adopting a category exclusion is that the action in question must not have an ‘appreciable effect individually or cumulatively on the environment.’” Oil and energy exploration activities “usually do not meet that standard,” the group notes.

In the case of the Green River proposal, the BLM simply conducted what’s known as a scoping process—a preliminary look at a project’s significance that does not involve extensive study. To help protect water, fisheries and wildlife, the BLM set some 25 environmental stipulations for Green River to follow. But critics say that isn’t enough.

“It’s taking a landscape that’s pretty wild and undisturbed and turning it into an industrial zone with helicopters, buggies, ATVs, and holes drilled in the ground. That’s a very different scene than people hunting and hiking in a wilderness area,” Dowd argues. “Blowing 875 explosive holes in the ground over 36 miles”—on 26 miles of public land and 10 miles of private land—“is not routine,” she adds. “It’s a big deal.”

The BLM disagrees. “This will be non-invasive and non-impacting in a short time frame,” says Marilyn Krause, BLM public affairs specialist. According to the BLM’s exclusion decision, “there are no extraordinary circumstances potentially having significant effects on the environment.”

Morris declined to discuss specifics about the project; other Green River officials did not return phone calls. But according to the company’s “statement of operations,” submitted to the BLM and the Forest Service in December 2007, the project calls for setting off explosive charges along three seismic charge lines that cross some 14 miles of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest; seven miles of BLM land; five miles of state land; and 10 miles of private land. Every 220 feet along the lines, crews will drill a 60-foot “shot hole,” in which 40-pound explosives are set off to make seismographic measurements.

The entire site lies roughly between Big Sheep Creek to the northwest and Sheep Creek, Garfield Mountain and the Lima Peaks to the southeast. The seismic lines will cross moist lowlands, treed ridgelines and numerous creek basins.

Where possible, crews will access shot holes with industrial trucks, or “buggies,” fitted with oversized heavy-tread tires designed to minimize impacts on the landscape. Crews will also use helicopters when necessary.

Michael Gibson, outreach director for Montana Trout Unlimited, is worried about a number of issues. He says traffic will increase on a road by Big Sheep Creek, a key route for vehicles in a location central to the project’s day-to-day operations. “They’re using a large-wheeled buggy to spread out the weight,” Gibson says. “But there’s some pretty erosive soils down there, and some delicate vegetation. They say it will grow back in a year, but we’re not too sure about that.”

On slopes with less than a 27 percent incline, according to the operations statement, a buggy will carry a 14-ton drill to shot hole drill sites. In steeper areas, helicopters will lower drilling crews, lessening the footprint on the ground, but not in the air.

“This project is going to be in the heart of bighorn sheep and grizzly bear habitat,” says Dowd, who worries about the effects on animals as noisy helicopters hover overhead for weeks on end.

According to the operations statement, the company aims to drill an average of 25 to 30 holes each day, requiring about 30 personnel for 10 to 12 hours a day, and six to seven helicopter flight hours per day.

A number of conservation groups have sent protest letters to the BLM, Forest Service and Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC). Montana Trout Unlimited Director Bruce Farling noted in his letter that—along with creating explosive sub-surface sonic waves—the project could cause water quality damage from the motorized vehicle use near streams, and introduce invasive plants due to the drilling and helicopters.

To prevent the potential spread of noxious plants, the BLM is requiring that all vehicles be power-washed prior to entering federal lands. To minimize fisheries impacts, the agency is requiring shot holes to be more than 1,320 feet from developed springs and 700 feet from fishery streams. “Before we issued a categorical exclusion we had our fisheries biologist and wildlife biologists see if the proposed activity met the criteria for a categorical exclusion, and it did,” says the BLM’s Krause.

Work is slated to be finished between June 1 and October 15 of this year, to avoid conflicts with hunting season. The BLM is also requiring helicopter pilots to avoid areas where herds gather.

“We made many conditions on this project,” Krause says. “We feel like we’ve gone above and beyond to make this as environmentally responsible
as possible.

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