Wagner: Report missed ongoing evolution in oil and gas technology

In the last few years, advancements in energy technology, such as directional and horizontal drilling, have unlocked vast quantities of oil and natural gas trapped far below the earth’s surface. Not only is this significant to our economy and way of life, but it dovetails superbly with industry’s ongoing environmental stewardship efforts by reducing impacts associated with disturbance and habitat fragmentation.

This is why I read with interest the article “Canaries in coal mines” in the Open Spaces section of the July 31 issue of the Casper Star-Tribune. The topic of the article is the recent report “Assessing the Future Vulnerability of Wyoming’s Terrestrial Wildlife Species and Habitats” prepared by The Nature Conservancy, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database. Having read the report myself, I was faced with the fact that, once again, an exceedingly pessimistic evaluation of the risks and exposure to wildlife and habitat from future oil and gas development in Wyoming is being made based upon science that uses outdated information. While this is nothing new, it provides an opportunity to remind people about how the oil and natural gas industry has evolved over the past ten years.

The oil and gas industry is continually researching and developing new ways to reduce its footprint on the landscape. The development of horizontal and directional drilling practices demonstrate ways in which technological advancements benefit the environment by substantially lowering well densities, disturbances and habitat fragmentation. A single horizontal well can take the place of up to 16 vertical wells, depending on spacing. Horizontal drilling requires an average initial disturbance of 10 to 12 acres for the well pad. Conversely, each vertical well pad (deep drilling not coal bed natural gas) averages four to five acres. Development of one square mile with horizontal wells can be done with one to two wells on one to two pads over the course of six to eight months with a total of 10 to 24 acres of disturbance; whereas, vertical development of the same area would require eight to 16 wells on eight to 16 pads over the course of eight to 32 months with a total disturbance of 32 to 80 acres. These statistics clearly illustrate the reduced well densities and habitat disturbance that result from the use of horizontal drilling.

Research upon which the report bases its conclusions does not acknowledge the increased use of horizontal and directional development methods. Rather, it relies upon traditional vertical well densities for measuring disturbance on the landscape. As evidenced by Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission records, the annual number of vertical well (deep drilling) permits issued decreased from 1,458 in 2003 to 363 in 2013; conversely, the number of horizontal well permits issued increased from 15 in 2003 to 1,394 in 2013. These figures clearly indicate that horizontal development has increased exponentially over the past ten years, while the use of vertical drilling has drastically decreased, thus rendering the use of traditional vertical well counts no longer a valid foundation for measuring disturbance on the landscape. This is why we are continually reaching out to agencies, environmental groups, and other stakeholders to make sure the oil and gas industry’s technological advancements are being fully considered when interpreting data and models. Rather than a harbinger of larger problems yet to come, these technological advancements foster reduced impacts to the landscape as a whole as well as wildlife habitat specifically.

As a result of the constantly evolving technologies being developed and utilized by the oil and gas industry and their evident environmental benefits, we strongly caution against the use of studies and reports that do not include the most up-to-date information when forecasting the industry’s effect on wildlife and habitat.