Industry officials planning a new industrial project in the Wyoming Range say plans are in place to prevent further degradation to a stream network in oil and gas country that no longer supports cutthroat trout. Representatives of the Denver firm QEP Resources are planning a gas processing plant to produce helium, methane and carbon dioxide, along with 10 new gas wells and associated infrastructure within the Dry Piney Creek drainage. Located on federal and private land, the Dry Piney Deep project is in the early stages of being analyzed by the Bureau of Land Management, which held a public meeting in late April to introduce the proposal. “We’ve assessed the project in some detail, and I think it’s fair to say our view is the impacts that are going to be created are going to be minor and can be mitigated,” Dry Piney Deep project manager Dick Flygare said at the April 27 Big Piney meeting. “We hope, to the point where the BLM will agree with us, that there will be no significant impact remaining after the mitigation measures have all been deployed.” Disturbances tied to oil and gas drilling have eliminated native Colorado River cutthroat from the Dry Piney Creek drainage, and have native mottled sculpin in danger of extirpation. Those findings were included in a University of Wyoming master’s thesis recently completed by Carlin Girard, who today works as a water resource specialist for the Teton Conservation District. Dry Piney Creek is about 80 miles south of Jackson in the sagebrush-blanketed foothills east of the Wyoming Range. The drainage, which contains 3.4 well pads per square mile, feeds into the Green River from a ridge that rises to about 8,000 feet.
Area has already been drilled
The proposed development is planned entirely within the Dry Piney Creek drainage, and within the confines of an area that’s already been drilled by QEP. In addition to the 10 new wells the Dry Piney Deep development would include roads, pipelines, a gas processing plant, CO2 injection wells, 13 miles of electric line and a substation, a water supply well, water disposal well and one sour gas disposal well. The wells would tap into the Madison formation 17,000 feet underground, according to a two-page “conceptual proposed action” document posted to the BLM’s website. The pads would disturb 7 to 8 acres initially, and about 2 acres per pad after reclamation, the document said. Five of the 10 proposed well pads are located within a half mile of Dry Piney Creek feeder streams, BLM maps show, though the optimal location of each pad is still being determined. Three of the pads would require pipelines that would cross tributaries to the creek, the maps show. Past industrial spills, most recently a 175-gallon oil spill in 2012, are among the reasons why cutthroat no longer swim in the Dry Piney drainage, Girard found in his study. QEP’s Flygare said because of the nature of the Dry Piney Creek project that there’s little likelihood of spills. “The reason I say that is because you’re not hauling fracking fluids up there,” Flygare said. “And there is no oil involved — this is all gases of different types, not fluids. “If there’s a tank rupture or something like that,” he said, “it’s going to vaporize.” Tim Zebulske, the supervisory natural resource specialist for the BLM’s Pinedale Field Office, made a similar point about the Dry Piney Deep project.
Fracking probably not needed
“From the environmental standpoint, they don’t plan to do hydraulic fracturing on these wells,” Zebulske said at the meeting. “It’s not expected to be necessary. I think the formation will just yield without fracking.” Most of the existing wells in the Dry Piney drainage were fracked, Zebulske said. “There hasn’t been any drilling in this area in three or four or five years — maybe a single well here or there,” he said. “This field dates back to about 100 years ago.” Rather than opening additional nearby lands now on the table for energy development, Girard said his view is it would be better to stack up projects within the already degraded Dry Piney Creek area. “That is my personal stance,” he said, “and I don’t know if anyone agrees with me.” The likelihood of a successful cutthroat reintroduction into Dry Piney Creek is low given its current state, Girard said. Compared with South Beaver Creek — a parallel drainage with limited energy development that sustains cutthroat — Dry Piney has poorer riparian conditions, fewer streamside willows, more erosion and more bare dirt, his research found. The water was more sediment loaded, and the streambed contained more heavy hydrocarbons. Beavers, which build dams that boost summer flows and provide winter habitat, have also been nearly eliminated from Dry Piney Creek. “I think that re-establishment [of trout] would probably not work that well,” Girard said. “And Game and Fish did try, and it did not end up being successful.” If all goes as planned, construction on the Dry Piney Deep project would begin in 2017 and be completed by the middle of 2019. QEP staffers at the meeting touted the project as an economic boon to communities in Sublette and Lincoln counties. “The economic life of this project is estimated to be 40 to 50 years,” Flygare said. “These are high-paying jobs that will literally last decades.”