U.S. Forest Service cancels agreement with Denver-based energy company | AspenTimes.com

U.S. Forest Service cancels agreement with Denver-based energy company

The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

CHEYENNE ” The U.S. Forest Service has canceled an arrangement with an energy company that Gov. Dave Freudenthal and others said compromised proposed oil and gas leasing along a scenic western Wyoming mountain range.

Under the arrangement, Denver-based Stanley Energy Inc. was to have paid for a $250,000 to $500,000 environmental analysis of proposed oil and gas leases that Stanley Energy was seeking to acquire on the Wyoming Range. Stanley Energy had representatives attend planning meetings for the analysis.

Freudenthal and others said the arrangement was inappropriate and compromised the environmental analysis by allowing the company too much access and influence.

Bridger-Teton Forest Supervisor Kniffy Hamilton announced Tuesday that the federal agency will now take over the analysis because of the concerns.

“Public trust and confidence are essential to our success as stewards of the Bridger-Teton National Forest,” Hamilton said in a statement. “Mistakes were made in administrating a proponent funded environmental analysis which has compromised that trust.”

Besides canceling the arrangement with Stanley Energy, Hamilton said the Forest Service will post notes from planning meetings attended by company representatives.

A telephone message left with Stanley Energy for comment was not immediately returned Tuesday.

Freudenthal welcomed the move but says the Forest Service is still proceeding too quickly on proposed oil and gas leasing in an area where he opposes such development.

“We remain concerned that the Forest Service continues to push that this analysis be completed on a very short time line,” he said in a statement. “Development of the Wyoming Range involves serious questions about air quality, watersheds and wildlife, including such sensitive and threatened species as the cutthroat trout and Canada lynx. It is too critical to address in a hurried fashion.”

The environmental study will look at whether to allow oil and gas leasing on 44,720 acres in and around the Wyoming Range. The agency had earlier identified the acreage for leasing but was forced to study how oil and gas drilling might impact the environment after conservation groups protested.

The environmental study is expected to be completed by mid-September and the final decision is expected by the end of the year. The timeframe is earlier than the one expected before the arrangement with Stanley Energy was canceled.

Bridger-Teton spokeswoman Mary Cernicek said the environmental analysis had not yet started but the Forest Service was shifting personnel from other projects to work on the Wyoming Range leasing plan.

“So I guess you could say they shifted priorities in the region to make that possible,” Cernicek said.

Stanley Energy will be afforded the same rights to comment and participate in the process as the public, she said.

Freudenthal said the Wyoming Range leasing issue should be made part of a separate, larger initiative to determine future management of the entire Bridger-Teton National Forest. The Wyoming Range accounts for about 1.2 million acres of the 3.4 million-acre forest.

The overall forest revision process has been mired in court rulings and challenges and currently is in limbo with no timetable for completion, Cernicek said.

Freudenthal, some local residents and other elected officials say the Wyoming Range should be off limits to energy development because of its significant recreation and scenic value. Oil and gas companies maintain they can drill on the outer edges of the mountain range with minimal disturbance.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., has introduced a bill in Congress that would prevent oil and gas drilling in the Wyoming Range.

The Bush administration estimates the area covered by the bill contains 8.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 331 million barrels of oil.