Commissioners urge feds to ease restrictions on oil and gas industry

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With a Republican in the White House, Park County commissioners say it’s high time for the federal government to lift some restrictions on local oil and gas development.

Commissioners remain unhappy with parts of a 2015 land use plan that governs the management of millions of acres of public lands across the Big Horn Basin. They say two parts of the Bureau of Land Management’s plan are holding back the minerals industry.

In conversations with Wyoming’s Congressional delegation over the past couple of years, commissioners had been told to wait for a change in administrations, recalled Commission Chairman Loren Grosskopf.

“Well, we have that opportunity now,” Grosskopf said during a conference call with a pair of Department of Interior officials last week. “So if there’s a time, I think, to make something happen, it should be now.”

“I can appreciate the sentiment, commissioner, and it is well-received,” responded Evan Wilson, a Denver-based BLM official, on the June 12 call.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, a former congressman from Montana, has made reducing regulations one part of his mission.

“The department is doing a tremendous job of breaking down regulatory barriers and cutting red tape to create economic prosperity that will benefit our nation,” Zinke declared in April.

However, in last week’s conference call, commissioners expressed disappointment that the department hasn’t done more about “lands with wilderness characteristics” (also known as LWCs) and “master leasing plans.”

When the federal Bureau of Land Management put together its Resource Management Plan for the Big Horn Basin, it initially identified about 476,000 acres as having wilderness-like characteristics. In response, Big Horn Basin commissioners hired a consultant to inventory those so-called LWCs. The firm, Ecosystem Research Group, prepared a report pointing out roads, tanks and other developments within those lands which, commissioners say, make them unsuitable for special wilderness-like protections.

The BLM’s final document called for no special protections for the LWCs, saying “no lands with wilderness characteristics are managed to maintain their wilderness characteristics.” It directs the BLM to “manage lands with wilderness characteristics consistent with other resource objectives.”

However, commissioners say the BLM’s flawed inventory is still discouraging drilling.

“Right now we’re living in a state of limbo, and in essence they’re being managed as de facto wilderness,” Commissioner Joe Tilden said of the LWCs. As soon as an oil company shows interest in drilling on a property that’s been identified as having wilderness characteristics, environmentalists will object, he said.

“For all intents and purposes, we’re stuck with wilderness that’s not wilderness,” Tilden said.

Meanwhile, master leasing plans — which guide the development of certain areas in the Basin, such as the front of the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains — effectively close “any potential for leasing,” he said.

Tilden and Grosskopf suggested the BLM plan’s provisions were a reason why Marathon Oil Company — which had operated in the state for more than a century — sold its assets to Merit Energy and left Wyoming in 2016.

“Between the [lands with wilderness characteristics] and the master leasing plans, they’ve pretty well covered the Basin,” Grosskopf said of the regulations.

He added that, “You wonder why oil companies have left the Basin and are going to the Bakken or the Permian Basin to invest their money,” referring to booming areas in North Dakota and West Texas, respectively.

Wilson, the BLM official, said he hears similar concerns about lands with wilderness characteristics on a weekly basis.

“This is not a unique problem and it is one we are all ears to,” he said.

Over the course of the nearly 40-minute call with Wilson and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Adviser Zach Gambill, commissioners also bent the interior officials’ ears about several other topics. That included asking for help in establishing a restroom for recreationists in the Clarks Fork Canyon and in getting access to publicly-owned canal roads maintained by the Heart Mountain Irrigation District; they also inquired whether the federal government is any closer to acquiring privately-held land on top of Sheep Mountain, west of Cody.

Wilson and Gambill generally said they would check to see what assistance they could offer, but indicated commissioners would likely need to work through local channels first.

Commissioners did almost all of the talking.

“I don’t know if it will do anything, but I feel better,” Tilden said after hanging up.

The conference call was a last-minute addition to the commissioners’ agenda, having been set up by the commission’s new executive assistant, Susan Kohn; Kohn, Gambill and Wilson all previously worked for Zinke when he was serving in Congress.

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