A map shows the parcels of land in northern Park County leased in the December auction. Roughly a third of all land leased to oil and gas companies in December was in the county.

A late December BLM lease sale has opened up more than 37,000 acres of land for potential energy exploration in northern Park County.

The land in question sits on both sides of WYO 120 North, extending from north of the Chief Joseph Highway to the Montana border. It reaches across the Clarks Fork Canyon, Big Sand Coulee area and Polecat Bench. Many of the parcels sit south of WYO 294.

Of the 169 Wyoming oil and gas lease parcels and 174,148 acres originally considered for the December sale, 160 went to auction and 123 were sold, covering 123,258 acres. Total state revenue generated was around $10.8 million.

Park County’s portion made up about 30% of the state’s total sale.

The BLM put 37 parcels of land in Park County up for leasing consideration, but only 30 tracts received a bid. Not one of the seven companies that won bids is based in Wyoming.

Habitat impact

Ninety-eight percent of the Wyoming leases sold make up sage grouse habitat, while 48% are highest-priority core sage grouse habitat, said Brian Rutledge, Executive Director Rocky Mountain Region of the National Audubon Society. Under BLM leasing regulations, leases are to be preferably placed outside the core sage grouse area.

“The last few sales have been almost entirely core,” Rutledge said. “We’re stepping on our efforts, which is really unfortunate.

“Does that sound like we’re doing preferential drilling outside sage grouse habitat?”

Courtney Whiteman, public affairs specialist for BLM Wyoming, said parcels leased within greater sage grouse habitat must comply with a stipulation that limits disruptions to one per 640 acres and disturbance to no more than 5% per 640 acres. Whiteman said all parcels also include a standard lease notice that notifies operators the BLM may require specific mitigation measures to reduce impacts on sage-grouse populations and habitats. Regulations also exist for leks, seasonal habitat and brooding areas.

The leased parcels also serve as migration corridors for other species. Rutledge said migration corridors should be considered a string of stop-over areas that provide food, shelter and water that provide habitat not only for migrating ungulates but also wildlife that call those parcels permanent home. The destruction of limited topography can also have a substantial effect on the large-scale environment as sagebrush retains moisture throughout a landscape by protecting windblown snow.

The BLM received 76 comments about the sale and 11 different conservation groups protested, citing concerns about wildlife on the edge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The National Parks Conservation Association argued BLM did not conform with the National Environmental Policy Act and failed to consider its own rules for big-game winter range. NPCA also expressed concern for a degraded quality of visit for Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park visitors. The BLM did not concur with this analysis.

“It’s up to us to decide what we value,” Rutledge said.

Park County Commissioner Lee Livingston said most of these parcels offer little opportunity for oil and gas, and will likely never actually be developed.

“They’re more likely to walk off and leave it, Livingston said. “More than likely not enough oil to make enough money developing.”

According to the BLM, about 60% of all leased parcels end up being developed.

Livingston said he would like to see the BLM bear responsibility on lands found to be not profitable.

Rutledge said instead of vertical operations, horizontal drilling should be enacted for energy sourcing outside sage grouse corridors. That technology allows for much greater oil extraction, creating 24-26 wells per oil pad. In the first two years following the creation of the sage grouse core area in Wyoming, conventional drilling was reduced by 64%, but directional drilling increased by 1,600%.

“There’s commensurate balance there,” he said. “We didn’t shut off anyone from a resource. We made them gain it in a responsible fashion for all the resources and uses of the land.”

But within the core sage grouse area rules are much stricter, inhibiting horizontal drilling.

“You’re not hearing the conservationists say stop all activity on the Federal landscape,” Rutledge said. “We’re simply saying, do it responsibly. Care about something besides your resource.”

Drills on the horizon

The land leased in December is used by hunters and other recreationalists, and is considered one of the most scenic destinations in the area outside Yellowstone National Park.

Clark resident Tim Crews is appalled by the possibility of seeing oil drills from his home. After moving to the area 1 ½ years for its scenic beauty, he said he now feels duped, and worries about the property value of his home being impacted.

“I don’t want an oil field in my backyard,” he said. “It’s very disheartening.”

Many of the parcels that will be leased sit directly west of Clark and just east of the Shoshone National Forest and Beartooth Front.

“That area is pristine,” Crews said. “I can’t imagine why (BLM would) want to allow that.”

Commissioner Jake Fulkerson said he sees both sides of the coin.

“I get where they’re (conservationists) coming from but its mandated to use that land for revenue,” he said. “We love being next to BLM land, but not when it’s fully (leased).”

Numbers don’t lie

The size of the parcels ranged from 80-to-2,468 acres, with mineral rights selling at rates of $2-$27 per acre. A $2 per acre price is the minimum price that all auctions begin at, per BLM regulations set by U.S. Congress.

The seven parcels not leased in the sale will go back up for noncompetitive leasing in two years, to be sold at a $1.50 minimum per acre price.

“How would you like to get an acre for $1.50?” Rutledge questioned, outraged. “That’s our heritage. Right after my freedom is the public estate.”

By statute, the BLM is required to offer quarterly oil and gas lease sales of available federal lands. According to the BLM, nearly half the revenue from each lease sale goes directly to the State of Wyoming and when leasing results in production, royalties from production are also shared with the state.

In 2018, the Wyoming BLM raised nearly $117 million through oil and gas lease sales and last year upped the ante, bringing in $24 million in additional revenue than the previous year.

“We’re seeing an unprecedented wave of oil and gas leasing across our public lands right now,” Kristen Gunther, a conservation advocate with the Wyoming Outdoor Council said.

Since President Donald Trump entered office acreage leased has more than doubled.

“Now we’re opening this sort of free market let er’ rip sale on the core habitats and we’re selling to people I’ve never heard of,” Rutledge said.

Rutledge said the fact that most of the oil and gas companies participating are small should not put residents at ease.

“When you sell that lease you no longer have the rights to that property in the present condition,” Rutledge said. “Even under the (lease) stipulations, if they cannot develop profitably under the stipulations, they can protest them and try to get them waived.”

“It gives us less comfort than if it was a big company than we worked with that has been responsible is buying. It’s opening the door to speculative development.”

In 2018, the federal government made 2.1 million acres of land available for oil and gas leases in the western United States, according to BLM and the Center for American Progress. Two years earlier, the government made just 472,000 acres available during President Barack Obama’s final year in office.

As a result, the amount of land being leased by the energy industry has risen. Oil and gas leased 1.3 million acres in 2018 and 709,000 acres in 2017. In 2016, under the Obama administration, the energy industry leased just 289,000 acres.

Upcoming sale

BLM Wyoming recently released notice for the March oil and gas lease sale, which includes 105 parcels totaling about 118,292.7 acres.

In Park County, 993.65 acres will be up for sale directly west of WYO 120 North across from Badger Basin. The sale will occur online at on March 21.

The BLM initially analyzed 125 parcels nominated for the sale. Four whole parcels and parts of 12 others were deleted from the sale list because they are in areas prohibiting oil and gas leasing. The deferred parcels include four whole parcels and portions of another that intersect state-designated mule deer migration corridors.

To see land information, environmental assessments and to protest the energy use, visit Deadline for protests is Feb. 20.

“What’s going to help us is giving new information or maybe information you think we haven’t considered enough,” Whiteman said.

People can only comment at this point if they commented during the initial comment period which ended in January. Whiteman said her department received 48 distinct comments for the March sale.

“We resolve all protests before … the actual lease sale,” Whiteman said. “A protest is basically a government function for people to say, ‘I don’t think you considered my comment, I’d like to see these remedied and submit a protest to do that.’”

Wyoming is one of the biggest states for BLM leasing, first in federal onshore gas production and second in federal onshore oil production. Wyoming has the fourth most BLM land in the country with 18.4 million acres.

The BLM issues four lease sales per year, a stipulation set into law by the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act of 1987, an amendment to the federal Mineral Leasing Act of 1920.

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