BLM: Oilfield developers should protect indigenous women

by Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Companies seeking to expand the Moneta Divide gas- and oilfield should screen, train and police boom-time workers to protect vulnerable Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone women, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management says.

The federal agency recommends Aethon Energy and Burlington Resources “adopt and incorporate” United Nations human rights guidelines as part of their safety and training programs, according to a final environmental review of the proposed 4,250-well expansion. Citing a “potential increase in crime” from the potential boom, the BLM said Native Americans experience violent crime “at rates much higher than the general public.”

Fremont County, home of the bulk of the Moneta field and planned expansion, is also the site of the Wind River Indian Reservation, home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes.

“…Native Americans have a history of being disproportionately affected by crime,” the final environmental impact statement reads. “Of tribal members, women would be most likely to disproportionately experience violent crime.” 

The BLM added the recommendation to its review and proposed approval of the oilfield expansion plan. The agency  released the 2,175-page study for a 30-day public review Feb. 20. Comments on the $6.4 million study are due March 23. Gov. Mark Gordon’s office has a 60-day window to respond. The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality is also considering renewing a permit to allow the discharge of produced water from the field.

The recommended protective measures haven’t previously been outlined so specifically in project reviews, Rep. Andi Clifford (D-Riverton) told WyoFile. She based that assessment on a conversation with her sister, who reviews such documents for the Northern Arapaho tribe, Clifford said.

 “I was happy to see it in there,” Clifford said. “I was elated.”

The plight of missing and murdered indigenous women is “a crisis we have at Wind River and across the nation,” she said. There’s a movement, however, to address the problem, including by promoting better data collection.

“There’s a lot of missing and murdered cases falling through the cracks,” Clifford said. She is the lead sponsor of House Joint Resolution 3 – Supporting federal missing and murdered persons efforts.

The measure has passed the House and is being considered by the Senate. It outlines statistics involving crimes against native Americans, including that they are murdered at more than 10 times the national average, that women and girls are twice as likely to be raped or sexually assaulted compared to women of other races, and that reporting and records are woefully deficient.

The resolution calls on Congress to expand and improve efforts to coordinate reporting, investigation and pursuit of justice in these cases.

“This resolution that we’re doing in the state is more than symbolic,” she said. The federal government is part of the equation, because of federal treaties and other connections with tribes. “Without the federal government, it’s not going to work,” she said.

Jobs, money and climate change

The BLM proposes approving a development plan with changes to the management of produced water. Currently flows are discharged into feet-deep erosion channels across public lands below oilfield outlets. The draft development plan contemplates construction of a pipeline some 40 miles long to the Boysen Reservoir carrying water “of equal quality, or better” than what’s in the reservoir.

The plan would increase protection of Native American artifacts on Cedar Ridge. The review estimates developers will run into 60 unknown but significant archeological sites, some or all of which could be buried. 

Instead of requiring 160 produced water disposal wells to be located outside valuable sage grouse habitat, the plan would allow 150 wells anywhere in the Shotgun disposal zone.

A worker takes a water sample from an outfall at the Moneta Divide Field. (DEQ)

The Moneta Divide field today comprises some 800 wells. Its expansion could generate annual revenues of $106 million in county ad valorem taxes, $87.5 million in Wyoming severance taxes and $182 million in federal royalties, according to the FEIS. Developers would unlock some 18.16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 254 million barrels of oil over 65 years.

Development across 327,645 acres of mostly BLM land would see construction of 890 miles of roads and 110 miles of power lines. The project would create an average of 740 jobs during the 15-year development phase, falling to 327 jobs during production.

Peak construction in year 15 would draw 497-790 direct jobs from outside the area, the study says. The increase is less than 1% of the 2010 population in Fremont and Natrona counties. Proposed housing would accommodate 700 of the workers.

The drilling and production would result in the emission of the equivalent of 1,744 million metric tons of CO2 over the project’s lifetime, a figure that includes the burning of gas and petroleum products produced from Moneta Divide, according to the FEIS. That equals 35% of the entire country’s total emissions in 2017, according to the American Geosciences Institute.

The annual emissions of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gasses from development in year 15 alone, not counting combustion of the oil gas produced, would be about the same as that produced by 1.1 million passenger vehicles, the study says. When also considering the combustion of that year’s gas- and oilfield products, the emissions would be about the same as nearly 14 million passenger vehicles.

Seen another way, production and combustion of oil and gas during development year 15 would release about as much CO2-equivalent emissions as 7.9 million households.

The environmental review catalogs the effects of climate change on resources in the area based on the Fourth National Climate Assessment. Those include smaller snowpacks, more winter flooding and reduced summer flows, the EIS said.

Changing climate will likely require shifts in agriculture, including a 5% to 20% increase in yields of rain-fed crops. Yet, “major challenges are projected for crops that are near the warm end of their suitable range or which depend on highly utilized water resources,” the assessment says.

Climate change, to which the project would contribute, would exacerbate competition for over-allocated water, the study says. In turn, that scarcity would likely increase the cost of development, either reducing production or raising fossil-fuel prices, the EIS says.

Climate change also would impact local economies that depend on river-based recreation, the EIS said. It would create more problems for indigenous people as well, the study says.

Protection for a rare sagebrush

The development plan calls for keeping development 100 meters away from the rare Porter’s sagebrush. Surveys in 1999 put the total number of plants at between 50,000 and 75,000.

Cedric L. Porter from the University of Wyoming first collected the species in 1949.

Development has a high potential to affect greater sage grouse, raptors, mountain plovers, white-tailed prairie dogs and big game, the analysis says. A greater sage grouse wintering area covers an estimated 352,129 acres in the immediate region analyzed in the study.

Although the BLM addressed some aspects of the proposed discharge of produced water, the main water authorities and responsibilities lie with The Wyoming Department of Environment Quality. That agency has issued Aethon a letter of violation for exceeding parameters in its existing water discharge permit. The company told the agency it would make some changes.

The DEQ has rejected the company’s plan to increase its discharges of produced water resulting from the proposed oilfield expansion. The request to increase pollutants drew a widespread protest last year. Aethon sought to dump 8.2 million gallons a day of tainted flows onto the landscape above Boysen Reservoir and Boysen State Park.

The reservoir flows into the drinking water supply of the town of Thermopolis. The discharge flows would have carried thousands of tons of dissolved solids a month into Alkali and Badwater creeks, which drain into the Reservoir.

The DEQ’s proposed renewal of a more restrictive Aethon discharge permit should not be approved, four natural resource groups told the agency. The new permit does not meet water quality rules and regulations, the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Powder River Basin Resource Council, Natural Resources Defense Council and Audubon wrote Feb. 18. 

Atheon said it is toeing the line. “Aethon Energy will continue to operate in compliance with the existing and future WDEQ permits for Moneta Divide,” a company spokeswoman wrote in an email to WyoFile.

But violations of the existing permit preclude its renewal, the conservation groups said. Further, the produced water is not of good enough quality and is not being used by livestock or wildlife as required, they assert.

The DEQ cannot legally “grandfather” the dumping of harmful pollutants, the groups’ letter states. “For several decades, the DEQ has authorized the continuing discharge of massive quantities of salt-laden produced water,” the groups charge.

“[T]his unlawful exemption has caused and continues to cause significant impairment to Alkali and Badwater creeks, and poses an ongoing threat to water quality in Boysen Reservoir and in the Class 1 segment of the Wind River below… even though the practice is patently unlawful,” the letter reads.

The DEQ is undertaking a study to see whether the protective classification for Badwater Creek should be changed. Conservationists say that could allow developers to dump more pollutants into the waterways.

Instead, they say, the DEQ should clean up existing, documented damage. Surveys have found petroleum products and volatile organic compounds in the discharges, plus erosion and “black sediment deposits,” including a sample that had a “strong sewage odor.”

Source: WyoFile

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