In northern Converse County, a semi-truck is pulling onto a highway from a rig site. It's rocking back and forth as 49 mile an hour sustained winds blow west. Many other trucks are parked in the lot as well, carrying oil, gravel, water and rig supplies. All this oil and gas activity is happening on Jay Butler’s ranch.
Butler has managed the 18,000 acre Robinson Ranch for 14 years, but oil and gas development has changed both his annual revenue and the state of his property. It’s now lined with natural gas pipelines, oil storage tanks, well pads, and more. He said it didn’t used to look like this.
“Five years ago, it would’ve been just a dirt two-track coming into that with no traffic with a pick-up driving through this pasture very, very sporadically. The human use is much, much greater today than it was,” Butler said.
In 2013, oil production began to spike in Converse County. By 2014, it had risen 269 percent in just two years. The area was inundated with crews from Oklahoma and Texas. Butler said he remembers the closest town to him, Douglas, was full.
“You notice the traffic on Highway 59, you notice the activity in town. Motels were full. The classic one, you go to the Wyoming state fairgrounds, the campground was clear full of 5th wheels and motor homes,” he said.
The boom abruptly ended in 2015, and the value of tax received from oil and gas dropped almost 60% in the county. But now, just three years later, locals are already talking about the next boom - one with a lot more proposed wells. I asked Butler how he feels about that as several trucks pass by.
“A little nervous, sure."
“Why is that?”
“Well, if it’s this busy and this much traffic today with this amount of oil activity... if it jumps many, many fold, it’s going to change the whole nature of our community,” Butler said.
All of this isn’t happening overnight. Back in 2014, five companies proposed 5000 new wells to the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM. Chesapeake Energy, Anadarko Resources, Devon Energy, EOG Resources, and SM Energy want to develop the wells over the next 10 years on 1.5 million acres.
At the end of this January, the BLM released the project's draft Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, opening up a public comment period for 45 days or until March 12. The document covers the project’s potential impact to socioeconomics, wildlife, water sources, and much more. Jim Willox, a Converse County commissioner, has been part of a group discussing the project since it was introduced. He said it’s a big deal.
“This is the first time we’ve experienced something of this scale,” he said.
Construction and employment for the project could begin as early as January of next year when the BLM delivers its record of decision. Willox explained what it could mean for Converse County economically by looking back at the boom in 2014.
"When you increase employment and increase activity in [the] community, those things absolutely go up.” Willox said, “sales tax numbers were at record levels from that oil and gas, so that allowed us to do some capital investment in the county. Low unemployment, anybody that wanted a job was able to get a job.”
He said this could be huge for the community. According to the draft EIS, employment from this project area could reach nearly 8,500 jobs by year 10 (pg. 127/328). Taxes and royalties could generate up to $9.2 billion in the first ten years, though that depends on energy prices (pg. 144/328).
Joel Schell, the Converse County Treasurer, watched the rush of new revenue and jobs a few years ago. He warned the increase didn't happen in a bubble and that it won’t next time, either. Back then, the cost of living rose 9 percent above the statewide average. Crime went up 7 percent with the larger population. Local emergency room numbers shot up as well.
"What we saw before, when you can’t hire teachers because there’s nowhere for them to live, they can’t find an affordable place to live or you can’t keep restaurants open because you can’t find workers. During the boom, there were people coming in here trying to hire my staff,” Schell said.
Though there was more money in the town’s coffers, much had to be spent on new issues like worse roads from the extra traffic.
"There’s always strings attached. The old bumper sticker is ‘Pray for another boom. We promise this time we won’t waste it’ kind of thing,” he said.
With a new project this time around, Jill Morrison, executive director of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, is worried about a different kind of transformation for Converse County: a negative one.
"If it goes really fast, it’s going to be a wreck. We have to be able to control the pace of development so that it does not overwhelm the infrastructure that we have,” Morrison said.
Morrison said the county could be left with difficult-to-plug orphan wells once the drilling is over due to the extra deep and long wells. Some of the horizontal wells are projected to be up to four miles long. The project’s new roads, power lines, pipelines, and traffic could also impact the land.
Converse County also doesn’t have methane regulations that could help reduce flaring or unnecessary leaks. Those emissions could eventually cause issues with ozone that could affect local residents, like in the Sublette County area.
"We’ve been trying to encourage the state to get out in front of it and tighten up some of the regulations, bring it up to the standards that they have in the Upper Green over around into the rest of the state so that we can try to prevent as many of those problems.”
Brian Rutledge, Vice President of the National Audubon Society, said this project overlaps with some of the most challenged sage grouse populations particularly affecting breeding habitat, or leks. He said there are projections up to 57 lek extrications in the general habitat. Rutledge says that can hurt connectivity. In the end, Morrison is looking for prudence.
“If we want to do this right, it’s going to take some very serious planning and some very serious upfront efforts to help reduce these impacts,” she said.
The project’s benefits and impacts will likely change as public comments come in, policy shifts, and the market changes. Public meetings for the project will occur February 20 through the 22 in Douglas, Casper, and Glenrock. All public documents can be found here.