Oil drilling comes to Utah wildlife refuge. Will rules keep birds, plants and fish safe?

(Photo courtesy of Ouray National Wildlife Refuge) In this 2008 photograph, Johnson Water Gap, a section of the Ouray National Wildlife Refuge in Uintah County.

A Dallas energy company expects to recover 400,000 barrels of oil from two wells it proposes to drill inside eastern Utah’s Ouray National Wildlife Refuge but only after agreeing to onerous concessions to avoid disturbing habitat used by migratory birds and threatened species of plants and fish.

The project taps the very heart of the refuge, formerly irrigated fields known as Leota Bottom framed by a big eastward bend in the Green River.

To protect the rare yellow-billed cuckoo, for example, Thurston Energy can perform no construction or drilling during the summer nesting season, and then must adhere to strict hours of operation. Tanker trucks may pass through only between 1 and 4 p.m., moving no faster than 10 mph.

That restriction not only protects birds but also the refuge’s human visitors, according to refuge manager Rob Bundy.

“Trucks are to yield to normal refuge traffic, which includes both staff and visitors. We want to minimize the impact of heavy truck traffic on our refuge visitors,” Bundy said. “Tanker trucks have never been on the refuge before, but Thurston has been good to work with. We have no complaints.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Bundy helped write a supplemental analysis of the project’s impacts. It was released last month and is subject to public comment through June 16.

Some commenters question the need to open Ouray to drilling when much of the region is under intensive energy development.

“The question is not whether we need oil and gas,” Utah river runner Herm Hoops wrote in his comments. “The question is whether we need that little bit of oil and gas in places like national wildlife refuges, national parks and monuments, wilderness."

The project would intrude on a “beautiful, quiet, and wild place to get away to think and refresh our soul, to hike, float or camp,” he added, arguing the federal government should not be obligated to grant access to energy developers at a site set aside for its natural values.

Balancing act

(Photo courtesy of Ouray National Wildlife Refuge) In this 2008 photograph, Johnson Water Gap, a section of the Ouray National Wildlife Refuge in Uintah County.

The project illustrates the balancing act the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) must perform when refuges overlap nonfederally owned minerals. Nationally, drilling has occurred within 107 refuges, where 5,000 wells are in place, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. About 1,700 are in active production, but another 450 are abandoned and unreclaimed.

“Nonfederal oil and gas activities in refuges most often occur where FWS has acquired surface rights to refuge lands without acquiring mineral rights,” the report states.

That’s what happened at Ouray, where the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) long ago acquired 619 acres of subsurface mineral estate under Leota Bottom. State law requires that such assets generate revenue for public education, a mandate that inevitably prioritizes drilling.

Thurston Energy, led by Texas oilman Ralph Curton, leased these minerals from SITLA in 2011. Curton has been trying to develop them, but the project has stalled to make adjustments in response to the needs of rare plants and animals, according to David Allin, a geologist managing the project on Thurston’s behalf.

Located 35 miles southwest of Vernal in the heart of the Uinta Basin oil and gas patch, the Ouray refuge covers 12,000 acres along a winding 16-mile stretch of the Green River. The refuge was established in 1960 to provide prime breeding, resting and feeding areas for migratory waterfowl and other birds. Its upland and wetland areas are crucial to protecting disappearing native fish, birds and plants.

Dense oil and gas development surrounds the refuge on all sides. The adjacent Three Rivers field taps rich deposits of waxy crude in the Wasatch Formation, which also lies 6,000 feet under the refuge.

Thurston originally proposed drawing out oil from vertical wells, along with associated gas and water, in bundled high-density polyethylene pipes that would be laid aboveground more than a mile to the Three Rivers field on the bench above Leota Bottom, according to Allin. That way, Thurston could avoid operating separators and tanks on-site at the wells in Leota’s sensitive lowlands.

But the 350-foot rise to the bench would increase the pressures above what that type of pipe could safely handle. According to Allin, who co-wrote the supplemental assessment with Bundy, Thurston was left with a tough choice: Move the oil through a costly underground steel pipe, or store it and the produced water in tanks on-site and truck it out. The company is going with the latter, which necessitated the extra analysis because the project’s footprint on Leota Bottom would increase to handle tanks and truck traffic.

“He [Curton] has been more than accommodating to the issues brought up by the refuge,” Allin said. “We tried, but we found it became impossible due to the terrain, so the project got reconfigured to standard best practices, like keeping the road building and pad sizes to a minimum. All the drilling systems will be closed loop and cuttings are captured in aboveground tanks rather than stored in pits.”

Protective measures

(Photo courtesy of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources) Sandhill cranes at Ouray National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Utah in 2011.

SITLA’s obligation is to produce revenue from its minerals, but the agency recognizes the need for its lessees to take additional measures when crucial natural values are at stake, like those at the refuge, according to Deputy Director Kim Christy. SITLA has leased parts of two trust land sections overlooking Leota Bottom, while retaining the right to extract the minerals. Those sections are under lease to a company called Bainbridge Uinta, which plans to drill 48 wells, five of which are already in production.

Because of its far more sensitive location, Thurston’s project must comply with 20 pages of conservation measures, micromanaging numerous aspects of the wells’ construction and operation. For starters, the wells are to be sited outside the Green’s 100-year flood plain.

“It’s a matter of engineering the well sites so there is no runoff and spills are corralled on-site, and there’s a program to deal with a spill if there is one,” Allin said. Instead of piping or trucking in the water needed to frack the two wells, it will be delivered from Pelican Lake via existing irrigation canals. Allin said the project features no directional wells.

Of the 237 bird species that use the refuge, the yellow-billed cuckoo, which nests in cottonwoods along the river, is causing Thurston the most hassles. To avoid disrupting this threatened species’ reproduction, activity during nesting season is to be kept to a minimum, and FWS is requiring Thurston to limit truck traffic to afternoons.

From the cuckoos’ perspective, it would be better to limit trucks to a few hours after sunset, according to Bundy, but a moving window timed to dusk would not be practical for truckers, so the service pegged drive time to 1 to 4 p.m.

“We prefer they stay in this window [year-round]," Bundy said, “but we will be less restrictive outside nesting season.”

The refuge is also looking out for the Uinta Basin hookless cactus, a plant species listed as threatened.

“It’s on rocky outcrops on the western edge of the refuge,” Bundy said. “We are requiring they do a survey to make sure they are not encroaching on any critical habitat.”

The drilling and fracking of the wells are expected to take 107 days, generating five or six truck trips a day on average. Traffic would decrease once the wells go into production, but the trucks would be using the refuge’s main access road.

“There is a place where the [road] comes close to the river. It’s a 20-foot drop to the water,” Bundy said. “We asked if they would install a Jersey barrier to limit the potential of a truck going off the road and contaminating the river. This allows us to also take care of a safety issue.”

Further complicating Thurston’s original proposal was its plan for two additional wells near the Ouray National Fish Hatchery. The facility is not just another set of ponds raising trout for recreational fishing but rather a critical piece of a $400 million effort to recover four listed species of fish — bonytail, Colorado River pikeminnow, humpback chub and razorback sucker — that inhabit the Green where it passes through the refuge.

Thurston agreed to drop its plan to drill there to avoid putting the hatchery operations at risk, essentially forgoing the minerals under most of its lease, Allin said. The company hopes to be made whole by swapping the bulk of its SITLA lease for Bureau of Land Management minerals on less-sensitive lands. The parties had identified unleased minerals north of Pelican Lake for an exchange, according to Allin, but the Trump administration sold leases on them last year as part of its “American energy dominance” agenda seeking to maximize energy development on public lands.