Public Issues Committee Guest Column: What NEPA Means to Petroleum Geologists Working the Rockies

Title: Public Issues Committee Guest Column: What NEPA Means to Petroleum Geologists Working the Rockies
Author: Logan MacMillan
Publication: The Outcrop, March 2005, p. 20-21

Over the past several years I have been following the changes in documentation of how the federal government will manage lands in an area of the Uinta basin in northeastern Utah, where I have been exploring for natural gas and oil. It has been an interesting experience, and one that may presage similar experiences for many of us in the exploration and even development business in many other areas in the Rocky Mountain region.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) dictates that land management agencies of the federal government, primarily the BLM and in some cases the Forest Service, produce a planning document for the public to address all of the many land uses for the foreseeable future, often the next 1-3 decades. Since oil and gas exploration and production are among those possible uses, it is included in the plans.

In most cases, the planning areas are defined by the District offices of the BLM, and most district offices of the BLM already have a Resource Management Plan (RMP) in place. In some cases, the planning office was able to proceed without having such a planning document, but then refers back to an earlier planning document, called a Management Framework Plan (MFP), that satisfies the needs of the federal agency and all the different constituencies that support the demands placed on the agency.

Such has been the case for the western portion of the Uinta Basin. An MFP had been the primary planning document for Carbon and Emery Counties, which encompass petroleum resource plays including the Ferron CBM (Drunkards Wash), the Blackhawk Formation of the lower Mesaverde Group CBM play of the Book Cliffs area, the much older structural fields of Grass Trail, Clear Creek and Gordon Creek, and other, emerging plays. When the discoveries of the CBM plays were made, full-scale development of the fields was delayed until an EIS was completed to update the RMP.

Recently, the Price District Office of the BLM released their first draft (for public review and commentary) of an Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) to update the RMP for the area. Just last month, the adjacent District Office in Vernal released their update of what had been two RMPs, covering effectively the remaining portion of the Uinta Basin. The public comment period is over for the Price District Office (PDO), but the Vernal District Office (VDO) comment period remains open until mid-April.

Working through IPAMS in these two Utah BLM cases demonstrated that very few geoscientists are willing to divulge their resource estimates unless they have already acquired available leasehold, which can present a problem if there are still open lands. A potential solution to that dilemma is using the USGS play analyses for that geographic area. In the case of the Price District Office DEIS, the Mineral Potential Report was totally inadequate, requiring some interestingly frank discussions amongst IPAMS’ review team. Although IPAMS has submitted comments for the PDO and has plans to do the same for the VDO, many other BLM district offices are in the process now of updating their own RMPs. Within the next 4 years, virtually the entire Rocky Mountain Region will have planning documents updated for those areas now considered (by me) to be the most prospective for oil and gas exploration and development.

It should go without saying that there are some groups that would exclude any oil and gas development from occurring on certain lands A quick review of the common media (daily newspapers, radio stations, television) include seemingly endless stories of legal challenges to leasing, drilling and development, as well as oil and gas operations gone awry. Some of these stories are of individuals, most include groups organizing to fight to preserve the  pristine beauty of some specific place, or, often times, broad expanses of what some geographers call scenic vistas. As was predicted several decades ago, as the environmentalists moved from the peaks and valleys of the mountain ranges down slope to include the mesas, buttes, valleys, canyons and arroyos in what we geoscientists recognize as the sedimentary basins, more conflicts will occur if wilderness designation is the objective of the environmental groups.

With the help and expertise of Bill Shearer of Buys and Associates, and Duane Zavadil, Bill Barrett Corporation, contributing in subsequent articles, it is my hope that we can provide RMAG members with opportunities to participate in a number of current public policy debates on RMPs available for public comment through RMAG’s Public Issues Committee, chaired and ably run by Larry Anna for the past several years. I have gotten to know both Bill and Duane well over the last few years; both are exceptionally well versed in the law, rules and regulations and processes of environmental reviews, both site-specific and programmatic. One of the RMPs receiving significant public debate now is the Roan Plateau, whose DEIS was released in mid-November. Normal comment periods are 90 days from release of the document, so it will end  shortly, unless extended by the BLM.

It is clear to me that so-called “environmental groups” are clearly working to exclude oil and gas exploration and development from much of our public lands. I oppose that and favor a multiple use of public lands. I also think the general public knows so little about our industry and the environmental impacts from it that in the game of public perception, we will lose access to public lands, both federal and state, unless we do a better job of convincing the policy makers that production of hydrocarbons from public lands is a benefit to society as a whole.

The main focus of this series of articles will be to bring to your attention the need to be involved in the federal planning process for those areas that you are currently working, have worked in the past, or wish to work in the future. In addition, we want to encourage you as individuals to work with our sister professional societies for landmen and engineers, the petroleum trade associations, states, regional and national organizations, to coordinate your individual as well as our collective efforts to keep lands open for leasing, exploring and, we  hope, development of oil and gas.