By MARTIN KIDSTON The Billings Gazette trib.com | Posted: Friday, February 18, 2011 12:30 am
The Bureau of Land Management released its amended environmental assessment last week, clearing the way for exploratory gas drilling in areas of the McCullough Peaks.
The Bill Berrett Corp. first proposed its Rocktober Unit Project in the fall of 2008. The BLM completed its environmental assessment in 2009, giving the company a green light to drill three exploratory wells.
But several environmental groups and a private landowner protested the plan, saying it didn’t do enough to minimize visual impacts to the area, and that it failed to consider the area’s wild mustang population.
Mike Stewart, manager for the BLM’s Cody Field Office, said the amended environmental assessment addresses those and other issues, and found that the project would have no significant impact.
“The wild horse issue revolved around adding cattle guards, but we substituted gates over cattle guards. We also did a thorough analysis of the visual resources out there, and we added a couple stipulations that weren’t in there earlier.”
Several other changes had also taken place since the BLM released its original 2009 assessment, including a federal order to review the land for such wilderness qualities as natural condition, opportunities for solitude and other supplemental values.
Stewart said the mountain plover, which is common to the area, has also been proposed for listing as a threatened species, and new stipulations had to be made to address key nesting habitat of sage grouse.
The issues were included in the new environmental assessment, Stewart said.
“There are seven wells total that we analyzed in that first assessment,” Stewart said. “They (the company) can go forward with three of those applications to drill with the new stipulations on them.”
Drilling the remaining four wells will depend on how the first three wells produce. If the project does move forward, Stewart said, an onsite inspection would take place to identify and protect any site-specific resources.
According to the BLM, the fully established drilling operation would include a network of roads and pipes used to transport natural gas from the wells to a proposed compressor station.
If fully realized, the drilling operation and needed infrastructure would disturb about 155 acres. If the first three exploratory wells failed to produce in commercial quantities, they would be plugged and reclaimed, the document said.
But the project, which hinges on economic conditions, is proposed for an area many cherish for its open views, remoteness, wildlife and pristine quality.
The Wyoming Outdoor Council, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Friends of a Legacy-McCullough Peaks Mustangs and a private landowner joined to protest the BLM’s initial assessment.
“This was a very sensitive area,” Stewart said. “There are lots of thoughts on it from Cody to other places.”
Contact Martin Kidston at 307-527-7250 or firstname.lastname@example.org