By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 1, 2006
The Bureau of Land Management has neglected its public commitments to monitor and limit harm to wildlife and air quality from natural gas drilling in western Wyoming, according to an internal BLM assessment.
In the Pinedale, Wyo., field office of the BLM, which oversees one of the most productive and profitable gas fields on public land in the West, there is often "no evaluation, analysis or compiling" of data tracking the environmental consequences of drilling, according to the document, which was written in May and which BLM officials confirm is genuine.
The BLM in Pinedale has failed for six years to honor its commitments to track pollution that affects air quality and lake acidification in nearby wilderness areas, the document says.
In the years that the agency was not tracking emissions, the level of nitrous oxides in the Pinedale area exceeded limits that the BLM had publicly agreed might have an "adverse impact" on air quality, according to the internal assessment.
Nitrous oxides, from gas-field engine exhaust and the burning of waste gas, are a primary cause of the ground-level ozone that has reduced air quality in the high sage plains of western Wyoming, a region that until recently had one of the most pristine airsheds in the West.
The BLM, which has presided over a large increase in energy drilling across the Rockies, agreed after a long public hearing process to "limit surface disturbance and human activity" that could displace deer, antelopes and sage grouse in the Pinedale area, winter home to some of the nation's largest migratory herds of deer and antelopes and one of the few places in the West with a vibrant population of nesting sage grouse.
But the document says that recent studies show that deer and sage grouse have declined because of "the impacts of human activity" associated with drilling.
Earlier this year, Steve Belinda, a wildlife biologist in the Pinedale office of the BLM, quit his job because he said that he and other wildlife specialists were required to spend nearly all their time working in the office on requests for more drilling and could not go into the field to study the effect on wildlife of the thousands of gas wells.
The leaked BLM document was not intended for public distribution. It was prepared this spring to brief Dennis Stenger, the incoming field office manager in Pinedale.
"It is stuff to kick us in the side to take a look at some of our requirements," Stenger said in an interview. He added that he had asked for the assessment to help him understand what needed to be done.
Since 1994, the BLM has agreed to 824 separate commitments as part of the public approval process for drilling around Pinedale, BLM spokesman Steven Hall said. He said that 90 percent of the commitments have been met or were on schedule for completion.
"We are not always going to be perfect," he said, adding that the agency now has "to look at whether all the commitments in various documents are even doable."
Critics of the BLM said that the leaked document is not much of a revelation -- except in the agency's willingness to put its failures on paper.
"The facts are no surprise whatsoever," said Bruce Pendery, a program director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, an environmental group based in Lander, Wyo. "What is new is that, instead of us grumbling about the BLM not doing what it said it would do, the agency itself is acknowledging that this is the case."
Many national environmental groups have complained about the BLM's accelerating pace in issuing new drilling permits. Executives with oil and gas companies say the industry cannot keep up with the permits already issued. In the past two years, the BLM issued a record 13,070 drilling permits on federal land, but the industry drilled just 5,844 wells.
"While the leaked report shines light on the agency's failure in one specific place, we fear that it is emblematic of its handling of energy leasing and development throughout the West," said James D. Range, chairman of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a Washington-based group focused on the protection of hunting and fishing on public land.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who toured the Pinedale gas fields last week, told local reporters he was "impressed" with how companies there were working in a way that is "compatible with the environment."
But state officials in Wyoming have been complaining for years about how demands from Washington to speed up drilling is hurting the state's wildlife and causing long-term environmental damage.
The state's planning coordinator, Mary Flanderka, said BLM field offices in Wyoming are under extraordinary pressure to honor environmental commitments while, at the same time, dealing with orders from Washington to rush forward on energy extraction.
"There is not enough money or manpower to get the job done," she said.