The Hoback River, located near Jackson Hole in western Wyoming, received national attention last week after American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.-based conservation group, ranked it seventh on its annual list of “America’s Most Endangered Rivers.”
However, the term “endangered” may be a bit misleading. American Rivers’ list highlights waterways that are at an important crossroads in 2011, rather than selecting the most polluted, poorly managed or overused rivers. According to the report, natural gas development threatens the Hoback, making it the most threatened river in the Rocky Mountain region.
Plains Exploration and Production, (PXP), a Houston-based energy company, plans to drill 136 natural gas wells and construct 17 drill pads near the river. There are also concerns about the effects 29 roads new or updated roads could have on the area.
“If you were to close your eyes and throw a dart at a map of Wyoming, there couldn’t be a worse spot for that dart to land, and oil and gas development to begin,” said Scott Bosse, American Rivers’ director for the northern Rockies. “The Hoback has some of the cleanest water in the region.”
The proposed energy project, which would include hydraulic fracturing, would be located at the headwaters of the river. In 2009, Congress designated a downstream portion of the waterway a Wild and Scenic River, and the surrounding area plays a vital role in wildlife migration.
Surrounding habitats provide shelter for the threatened Canadian lynx, grizzly bear, gray wolf and several big game species. Several Wyoming wilderness groups nominated the river for inclusion on the American Rivers list.
“There are thousands of producing gas wells in Wyoming, but there’s only one Hoback,” Bosse said. “There’s just no reason to sacrifice it.”
PXP has meet opposition from several Wyoming environmental groups and local residents at public hearings, but the company said they have carefully considered environmental factors.
“PXP is sensitive to community concerns about protection to ground and surface water quality in the area surrounding the project,” said Scott Winters, PXP’s vice president of corporate planning and communications, in a prepared statement. “All drilling and completion operations in the proposed project area will be conducted in accordance with rigorous state and federal law.”
PXP has also taken extra steps to protect water resources in the area, in accordance with the Wyoming Range Conservation Agreement, Winters said. An initial exploratory well, located three miles away from the Hoback, would be the jumping-off point for the project, and if the well was successful, PXP would move forward with the proposed project.
Dan Bailey — who lives in Southern California and owns property adjacent to the drilling site and the Hoback — has attended all three public hearings regarding the development.
“I think the draft environmental impact study needs to go back to the drawing board,” Bailey said.
“For someone to want to drill there, you’ve got to have rocks in your head,” Bailey said. “This area is incredibly beautiful. It is untrampled and unspoiled. Drilling near the Hoback would risk a national treasure.”
In a March letter to the Bridger-Teton National forest supervisor, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead supported the collection of more data before the development moves forward — particularly the need for better baseline studies on air and water quality and the impact on wildlife — but also expressed the need for cooperation from conservationists and the energy company.
Under the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, any lessee must contact the Secretary of the Interior to retire or repurchase leases, leaving American Rivers and other conservation groups with only the ability to ask PXP for a buyout. The Forest Service does not have legal authority to make PXP sell the lease.
Another challenge would arise if PXP did, in fact, accept a buyout. The land must be purchased at market value with non-federal funds, which would leave environmental groups searching for funds to purchase about 20,000 acres of land.
Without more proposed environmental safeguards in the U.S. Forest Service’s impact study, PXP is at an economic advantage to pursue the wells, Bailey said, because there isn’t enough baseline data or evaluation of environmental risks. Increased scrutiny would make a lease buyout more attractive. The proposed impact study has ignited a fire under local residents. The Forest Service received nearly 60,000 written comments from residents.
Bailey, whose ancestors’ original homestead site also sits on his land, can’t imagine what the consequences of the PXP might be. “Recovery would be a hard thing to achieve once the Hoback has been disturbed,” Bailey said.