CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A land conservation group has reached a long-sought agreement with a petroleum company to prevent a controversial gas drilling project inside a national forest by buying out a vast area of federal oil and gas leases in northwest Wyoming.
The Trust for Public Land announced in Jackson on Friday that it plans to pay $8.75 million for nearly 58,000 acres of leases from Houston-based Plains Exploration and Production Co. The deal would end PXP's plans to drill 136 gas wells near the Hoback River headwaters inside Bridger-Teton National Forest.
"We have a deal to save the Hoback!" Deborah Love, the conservation group's Northern Rockies director, said to loud applause.
Never before has drilling occurred in the headwaters of a federally designated Wild and Scenic River such as the Hoback, she said.
"It's not that Wyoming residents oppose drilling. Folks recognize Wyoming is benefiting from the extraction economy. They just don't want large-scale industrial development in places that are frankly too special to drill," Love said.
The agreement made financial sense while allowing PXP to refocus elsewhere, a company official said.
"PXP has repeatedly stated our willingness to consider a buyout of our lease position if a valid offer was tendered. Today's announcement fulfills that pledge," PXP vice president Steve Rusch said in a statement.
The announcement opens a fundraising effort by the trust. The trust has secured $4.5 million for the deal but needs to raise the other $4.25 million by Dec. 31.
"We still have the last chapter to go. This is where all of you come in and you can help write a happy ending to that story," Love told the audience at Snow King Resort.
Opponents of the Eagle Prospect/Noble Basin project said it would pollute the air, harm wildlife and taint pristine streams in a landscape of rolling meadows and forest.
The drilling project was located near a southern approach to Jackson Hole used by many visitors to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.
Eighty-five percent of the buyout acreage is within an area protected by the 2010 Wyoming Range Legacy Act. The act prohibits future oil and gas development on 1.2 million acres in the mountain range that parallels Wyoming's boundary with Idaho. The law doesn't apply to the PXP leases.