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New 5,000-well Fracking Project Threatens Sage Grouse, Climate

BLM announces proposal for massive new oilfield drilling in key habitat

LARAMIE, Wyo. – WildEarth Guardians today expressed alarm at a proposal by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to approve the drilling and fracking of 5,000 new oil wells in Converse County, Wyoming, a massive dirty energy development that threatens to push the imperiled Powder River population of sage grouse closer to extinction and fuel increased greenhouse gas emissions.

“Proposing a major new drilling project in the middle of the Powder River Basin while the sage grouse plan amendments are still underway raises major concerns,” said Erik Molvar, Wildlife Biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “Since sage grouse populations are already crashing in the Powder River Basin and their long-term survival is at grave risk, this project is ridiculously ill advised.”

The oil project would cover approximately 1.5 million acres of land in Converse County, including federal lands managed by the BLM and the Thunder Basin National Grassland, and involving Core Areas designated for sage grouse protection. The companies are proposing to drill year-round, which would require exemptions from timing restrictions emplaced to protect the most sensitive wildlife habitats during the most important seasons of use.

“Given that the sage grouse is on the brink on an Endangered Species listing, oil and gas companies should be proving that they can do more, not less, to protect this imperiled bird,” said Molvar. “Timing restrictions are the least they can do to prevent the worst impacts. The oil industry should be looking at cutting-edge directional drilling methods to minimize their footprint on the surface of the land, as was accomplished in Alaska’s Alpine Field more than a decade ago, where an 18,000-acre oilfield was produced from two wellpads and 90 acres of total surface disturbance using directional drilling. We ought to be seeing that kind of commitment to minimizing impacts when key sage grouse habitats are involved.”

The Powder River Basin sage grouse population is at extreme risk for extirpation due to habitat fragmentation and destruction from coalbed methane production and West Nile virus, a disease deadly to sage grouse that is carried by mosquitoes that breed in coalbed methane wastewater ponds.

“The Powder River sage grouse population is the critical link between grouse populations in Montana and the Dakotas, and the rest of the sage grouse range,” added Molvar. “We can’t afford to lose this critical linkage, because if we do, the populations in North and South Dakota are almost certain to disappear as well, and the Montana population would become isolated, radically increasing the likelihood of extinction.”

Molvar also raised concerns that oil production may have different and perhaps greater impacts than natural gas production, which has been the focus of scientific studies on grouse so far.

“Pumping oil out of the ground involves tall steel pumpjacks that are in constant motion and make noise, which is an added level of disturbance compared to the natural gas wellsites are the subject of so much scientific study,” Molvar observed. “It is possible that the noise and constant motion of pumpjacks will result in added levels of disturbance for sage grouse, and the impacts of working oil fields on sage grouse needs to be an immediate priority for scientific study since oil production is on the rise, while natural gas drilling is in a bust cycle.”

The Bureau of Land Management’s proposal, which promises greater greenhouse gas emissions from methane leaks and oil burning, comes even as the Obama Administration has called for nationwide carbon reductions, including reductions in methane.

Details remain sketchy regarding the exact location and development plan for the project, which anticipates 1,500 new wellpads and a network of roads and pipeline. The Federal Register notice is available for review at


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