For years, southeastern Wyoming has been expecting an oil boom that’s never arrived. Just across the border in Colorado, drilling has reached breakneck pace, but Wyoming has been relatively quiet -- until now. The discovery of a new, more promising oil reserve has led to a surge of interest in oil and gas development in Laramie County over the last few months.
In May of 2013, oil and gas companies applied for nine permits to drill in Laramie County. In May of 2014, companies applied for 132.
Oil and Gas Supervisor Mark Watson says the sudden flurry of activity can be attributed to a deep sandstone formation called the Codell, which is showing more promise than the Niobrara formation companies had been previously targeting. Watson hesitates to call the increased interest a boom until the wells actually get drilled, but says there’s the potential.
“You know, the companies that are down there are serious about eventually drilling those wells. They just need to learn more about the formation,” he says.
Bloomberg News recently reported that even companies that are traditionally conservative in their estimates of an area’s potential, like EOG Resources, are starting to rank the Rocky Mountain region alongside the much better-known Bakken in North Dakota and Eagle Ford in Texas. In Laramie County, the promising reserves happen to coincide with the city of Cheyenne. That means more drilling and more fracking in populated areas.
“That’s getting to be a big issue. Colorado is already dealing with it, and now it’s probably going to be an issue in Laramie County because they’re drilling close to people’s houses,” Watson says.
Deb Schauermann moved to Cheyenne last May with her two horses. She put in a barn and built new fences, and then a few weeks ago, workers started staking out the adjacent property. She found out EOG has plans to drill as many as 32 horizontal wells. The closest well pad would be several hundred feet behind her house. Schauermann worries about the impacts, “The health impacts, all the flaring and all the chemicals that are going to go in," she says.
Hoping to get reassurance about some of those concerns, Schauermann was one of two dozen landowners who attended a meeting in Cheyenne recently about preparing for oil and gas development. She says the concerns linger, but that she’s feeling better equipped to deal with them.
“Being vigilant, taking pictures, calling people. I mean, I didn’t know that you should probably do all that stuff, so this has been very, very helpful, because I was feeling pretty helpless.”
Jan Beeken shares Schauermann’s concerns about the health impacts. She owns her mineral rights and in May, was negotiating a lease with the oil and gas company that she hopes will address some those concerns. But Beeken says the responsibility shouldn’t only be on the landowner. She says there need to be stronger state regulations, and enforcement of them.
“You know, I understand the need for drilling and oil and gas in Wyoming," Beeken says. "It supports the economic base for the state. There just need to be controls in to protect the workers, to protect the people and to do it right.
After numerous complaints from landowners and others, the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has agreed to review its rule governing the setback of wells from houses -- right now it’s 350 feet. The Commission might also take up flaring and other air quality issues later in the year. Jill Morrison, with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, says that process isn’t moving quickly enough, given the pace of development.
“Really, we need a moratorium on issuing any more permits until we can get some requirements on increasing the setbacks so it isn’t affecting people’s health safety and welfare,” Morrison says.
It’s not immediately clear who would have the authority to do that. Watson, the oil and gas supervisor, says he doesn’t.
“You know, people think that we can just stop them," Watson says. "If a company comes in with a drilling permit and they meet all the requirements of our current rules, I have to, by statute, approve that drilling permit. I can’t just say no.”
Watson is negotiating with companies though. For example, he says just recently, he asked a company in Laramie County to move their wells further back from a house and put up better noise barriers. It may have been a first -- historically oil and gas supervisors haven’t exercised their negotiating authority -- but it’s not likely to be last.