The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved a major pipeline project proposed for Wyoming Jan. 19, effectively designating about 1,100 miles of federal land for potential pipeline development in the future. The initiative aims to expand the state’s pipeline infrastructure and help energy companies transport carbon dioxide and other products for use in oil and gas development.
The Wyoming Pipeline Corridor Initiative proposal identified key routes across the state for future pipelines to opportunistically connect oil field sites with sources of carbon dioxide needed for enhanced oil recovery and other energy projects. Leaders of the project hope clearing this initial regulatory hurdle could help Wyoming in its race to commercialize carbon capture, utilization and sequestration technology too.
“The signing of this record of decision is an important piece of the puzzle as Wyoming continues to be a trailblazer on the path to establish a carbon capture facility,” Gov. Mark Gordon said in a press release. “The ability to have a CO2 delivery system, as made possible by the pipeline corridor initiative, helps make CO2 commercially viable.”
Over the past several years, the federal government has been conducting a massive environmental review of the BLM-managed land along the 1,970 mile route, attempting to locate any wildlife, resource or cultural conflicts along the way.
BLM published the final environmental impact statement based on that review on Oct. 28 and opened up the analysis to public comment.
The review identified its preferred alternative as one that would amend nine resource management plans in order to designate new 200- to 300-foot wide corridors across 1,111 acres of federal land for “carbon dioxide, enhanced oil recovery products or other compatible uses.”
Carbon dioxide can be injected into reservoirs to remove oil that traditional drilling processes did not extract in a process known as enhanced oil recovery. But companies need to be able to access carbon dioxide affordably. Some of the state’s energy leaders envision the pipelines being used beyond enhanced oil recovery.
“The Wyoming Pipeline Corridor Initiative is a classic example of Wyoming’s proactiveness and political leadership with respect to energy resources,” Wyoming Energy Authority Executive Director Glen Murrell said. “The approval of the project will be particularly helpful in overcoming barriers both perceived and real in the energy space.”
In addition to helping operators build pipelines to transport CO2 for enhanced oil recovery, the designated corridors could also boost the state’s effort to expand the use of saline aquifer sequestration, direct air capture or even facilitate the use of hydrogen in an “all-of-the-above” energy mix, Murrell explained. Pipelines for oil and natural gas, or broadband infrastructure, could also be potential candidates for certain segments of the corridors, he added.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed the record of decision on Friday, just days before the Trump administration left the White House. The stamp of approval gives the green light to companies to begin submitting specific proposals for pipeline construction along the designated route.
According to the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, streamlining the approval processes for future pipelines will not only help advance carbon capture projects on federal land, but it will also expand opportunities for enhanced oil recovery in legacy fields. Those projects in turn could generate substantial revenue for the state.
Despite the economic and technological promises of the pipeline, a deluge of public comments submitted to the federal agency over the last year have ardently opposed the project.
Many outlined concerns over greenhouse gas emissions, compromised air and water quality, wildlife disturbances, and other environmental consequences associated with the proposed developments.
Several conservation and citizen groups opposed what they called a “fast-tracked” decision made during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many feared the “blanket” approval for the corridor would weaken future environmental reviews for individual pipeline proposals, or limit opportunities for communities most directly impacted by the development to weigh in.
Kelly Fuller, energy and mining campaign director at Western Watersheds Project, has criticized the project over concerns the pipelines cut through sensitive sage grouse habitat. What’s more, the state and federal government failed to consult meaningfully with tribes that have rights to the land, she said.
“The process for siting these pipeline corridors was highly unfair to those who will be affected by new pipelines but weren’t allowed to help site them,” Fuller said. “The State of Wyoming met for years with government agencies, county commissions, and select private landowners, but didn’t invite the tribes whose homelands the pipelines would cross, nor all of the affected landowners. They weren’t invited to comment until after the main and alternative routes had already been selected.”
BLM contacted 25 tribes for consultation on Dec. 10, 2019, according to federal documents. But the state did start building the project as far back as 2010. Project Manager Matt Fry told the Star-Tribune the state did not initiate tribal consultations during the initial planning stages, because the state did not want to complicate the federal review process as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office was not contacted about the project until after the BLM environmental review was finished and well after pipeline routes were identified, said Crystal Reynolds, a tribal archaeologist.
“I wish that they would have reached out prior to getting the (environmental impact statement) done,” Reynolds said. “We like to be involved as early in the process as possible.”
“The reason we have interest in the project is because where it covers is a lot of our migratory territory within the state of Wyoming,” she continued. “Our migratory territory actually covers 13 states.”
That means sacred cultural sites, historic and prehistoric resources and burials remain across the state and could be lost during development if proper precautions are not taken.
“We evaluate things in a different sense than an academic archaeologist,” she added. “Having our feet on the ground and eyes actually on the horizon and being able to read those things you can’t get from any piece of paper or any other document that somebody else writes up (is important), so that we all have the best understanding of what was actually present on the ground in the project area at the time.”
The Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office plans to be involved in future environmental reviews and surveys when companies submit individual pipeline proposals to the BLM.
The pipeline initiative has been a dream for Wyoming leaders for a long time. Former Gov. Matt Mead started pursuing it around 2010, according to Fry, the project’s manager. The Wyoming Legislature appropriated $2 million for the project in 2012. The state then submitted an application to the BLM in 2014.
By approving nearly 2,000 miles for possible pipelines on private, state and federal land, Wyoming could expedite the review process for future construction projects, the state reasoned. For Fry, receiving the record of the decision this month was a big deal.
“When you get a record decision — whether you’re a company or the state — you never get exactly what you want out, but I feel pretty comfortable that what we got was close enough to what we proposed,” Fry said. “It’s a workable product in the end, and hopefully, we can we can put it to use.”
Though Tuesday’s announcement that the project has received BLM approval is significant for the state, the federal endorsement of the proposal does not necessarily mean pipeline construction will begin immediately.
Companies hoping to build a pipeline within the approved corridor will still need to undergo additional environmental reviews and secure permitting. What’s more, volatile energy markets leave the exact outcome of the project unknown.
When Fry started working on the project a decade ago, oil prices hovered around $100 a barrel, he said. Now, prices are roughly half that.
“Obviously, market conditions drive those projects,” Fry said. “We’re just helping to incentivize and provide some sort of a bridge for folks to help them move forward. Hopefully, this and future federal incentives will help get the ball rolling, and we’ll get some projects on the ground.”