Oil firm sues for ranch access

Posted 9/17/13

Principle Petroleum Partners says the Pitchfork Ranch has refused to let the company construct infrastructure on the ranch that it needs to reach and develop oil and gas leases beyond. The suit says the Pitchfork and The Nature Conservancy, which …

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Oil firm sues for ranch access


A Texas-based oil and gas company is asking a judge to let it build a road, gas pipeline and power lines across a historic Meeteetse ranch.

Principle Petroleum Partners says the Pitchfork Ranch has refused to let the company construct infrastructure on the ranch that it needs to reach and develop oil and gas leases beyond. The suit says the Pitchfork and The Nature Conservancy, which holds a conservation easement on that part of the ranch, have rejected the oil and gas developer’s offers and alternatives to date.

According to the complaint, one of the co-owners of the Pitchfork Ranch, Dr. Lenox Baker, told Principle Petroleum after an initial meeting in March that “this ain’t gonna happen.”

“I just wanted to let you know ahead of time so that you don’t waste a lot of time and any more money on it,” Baker said, according to a transcript of a voicemail submitted with the company’s suit. “But we don’t want this to happen and we’ll go to every length we can to not let it happen.”

Principle Petroleum Partners is seeking to develop state lands it has leased about 17 west miles of Meeteetse. The area is surrounded by the Pitchfork Ranch land on three sides and blocked by Carter Mountain to the west, the complaint says.

The access across the Pitchfork is needed “because otherwise the Principle state leases will be rendered inaccessible and useless to Principle, and the state of Wyoming will not enjoy the benefit of having its lessee conduct oil and gas exploration and production on public lands,” the document says. The complaint was filed Sept. 6 in Park County’s District Court by Principle Petroleum attorneys Nicholas Haderlie and Jacob Haseman of the Throne Law Office in Sheridan.

Principle Petroleum is specifically seeking court approval to build 330 feet of new road and extend existing power and gas lines by roughly a half-mile each on the Pitchfork Ranch. The company is offering $14,634 for the ranch property it would take.

Wyoming law allows oil and gas companies to use eminent domain to get easements necessary for the construction, maintenance or operation of their facilities, though the project must be planned to bring the greatest public good and the least private injury.

The Pitchfork Ranch’s other co-owner, Greg Luce, said in a July 17 letter attached to the complaint that Principle Petroleum Partners was showing arrogance in asserting the oil and gas leases were superior to all other concerns.

“Perhaps that is how your clients are used to things in Texas, but that is not how it works in Wyoming, and not how it works on the Pitchfork Ranch,” Luce wrote to Principle attorney Haderlie.

Luce, himself an attorney with the Washington, D.C., office of the Skadden law firm, expressed many concerns, including that Principle Petroleum hadn’t provided enough information about itself, that the wells are unlikely to succeed and that the project could impact ground water, wintering elk, black-footed ferret reintroduction efforts, Yellowstone Cutthroat trout and other wildlife.

The Nature Conservancy echoed many of those concerns in a July 19 letter.

“The issue presented is whether engaging in conduct that has a known detrimental impact on land and animal conservation in the hope that previously unsuccessful attempts to use the state’s natural resources will not prove successful outweighs the conservation interest,” wrote attorney Katherine Ritchey of the firm Jones Day in San Francisco.

“We believe, and (The Nature Conservancy’s) conservation easement supports, that the greatest public good in this situation is the continued preservation of Wyoming’s land and important wildlife habitat.”

The conservation easement prohibits the construction Principle Petroleum is proposing, but Wyoming law says those easements can be overridden by eminent domain.

Luce suggested Principle attend a meeting with state and federal agencies “to consider the risks posed by your proposed project, work from a common understanding of boundary lines, and secure more specific information about your company and its intended operation.”

Haderlie, Principle’s attorney, responded in August that the company has been in contact with the agencies, who haven’t raised objections. He said the suggestion the agencies could impose new requirements to address the Pitchfork’s concerns “amounts to a collateral attack on the leases, yet Pitchfork Ranch was silent in 2009 and 2011 when the leases were issued.”

Principle Petroleum officials said they’ve tried to address the ranch’s concerns, including offering to fund conservation or habitat improvement projects or to add more wildlife stipulations, proposing alternate routes and inviting suggestions.

Principle President Daniel Dobson said in an affidavit that Pitchfork representatives, among other issues, “voiced non-specific concerns related to horizontal wells and hydraulic fracturing and gave movie references as the basis for those concerns” at an initial meeting in March. Dobson said he and Daryl LeFevre — a Cody petroleum engineer who’s a member of Principle Petroleum — explained the project involved vertical wells that generally don’t involve fracking.

Principle Vice President Scott Gladden said in one letter that at least 17 oil wells have been drilled since 2007 on state lands around the Pitchfork Ranch and none have had the impacts Pitchfork representatives fear. The project will re-develop an area that had oil and gas activity from 1957 to 1961 and from 1981 to 1991, Haderlie said, adding that the project will comply with Wyoming regulations.

The Nature Conservancy and the Pitchfork Ranch will next file a response to the complaint, which requests a hearing within 15 days of the entities being served with the document.

The Pitchfork Ranch was founded in 1878. Now encompassing more than 100,000 acres, it continues as a working cattle ranch and occupies “one of the few remaining unbroken valleys in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” according to the ranch website.

Principle Petroleum Partners was created earlier this year by a Houston private equity fund, though its members have oil and gas industry experience with other companies.