Jackson Hole fights plan to drill in forest

The Getty Oil Company wants to drill in Jackson Hole, in an area the US Forest Service has recommended for official designation as wilderness. ''Why do they have to drill here?'' is the anguished cry from townspeople. ''Why can't they leave this beautiful place alone?''

''Because of the attractiveness of the prospect,'' says Dick Hamilton, Getty's Denver district manager for exploration and production. ''I don't have any more interest in destroying the scenic values of this place than anyone else. We feel we can go in and drill this in an environmentally sound manner, and we want a chance to prove it.''

The US Forest Service and the Department of the Interior have accepted the Getty people's argument that they can drill on the site and then if they come up with a dry hole - and most wells are dry holes - ''rehabilitate'' the area, restoring it to more or less its virgin state.

''We feel we have solid biological information that we can rehabilitate this area,'' says spokesman Fred Kingwill at the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

And Getty points proudly to the rehabilitation of its Teton No. 1 well, a dry hole on a tract similar to Little Granite Creek but outside the proposed wilderness.

The Jackson Hole Alliance for Responsible Planning, a local environmental group, does not buy Getty's argument. It has filed suit against Getty and the Department of the Interior, which handles wilderness leases. A Sept. 6 trial date has been set.

Gov. Ed Herschler is likewise opposed to the drilling, as are the Sierra Club and others.

It started in 1969, when an oil company later bought by Getty acquired a minerals lease for a tract on Little Granite Creek, called the Bear Thrust Unit, in Bridger-Teton National Forest. This company and its successor, Getty, had 10 years to apply for a permit and start drilling.

The Bear Thrust Unit is part of a national forest ''roadless area.'' As is not always recognized, federal wilderness legislation of the early 1960s allowed for oil and gas leasing not just in national forests, but even in designated wilderness areas, through 1984.

National feeling on environmental issues was changing over the 10-year period of the Getty lease, as evidenced particularly by the passage in 1972 of the National Environmental Policy Act. ''Leasing activity has pretty much stopped within the past couple of years,'' observes Mr. Kingwill, even though the deadline isn't up yet.

When Getty formally applied for permission to drill on the Little Granite Creek site, federal agencies decided a full environmental-impact statement was called for.

Opponents of Getty's proposed drilling fervently wish the Bear Thrust Unit would remain roadless, marked only by the backpackers' footprints, not tire tracks.

The legal tacks they are pursuing are these: They're arguing that the lease was improperly ''suspended,'' that is, extended past its 1979 termination, to allow settling of procedural questions. They argue that wildlife studies for the project were inadequate. They argue that the site was improperly ''unitized''; and perhaps most important, they argue that the government's impact statement was inadequate because it covered environmental effects of drilling only one exploratory well. Getty isn't going in there intending to drill a dry hole, plug it, plant grass seed, and move out, they say; Getty is going in there in hopes of finding gas and then developing a whole field.

Mr. Kingwill says this ''inadequate'' impact statement cost $600,000 and took a whole year to produce; economy argues for holding off on a study of field development until gas is found, he adds.

And Getty's Mr. Hamilton protests that the statement indeed covers field development to the extent possible at this early date.

But Robert Schuster, a Jackson lawyer helping to represent the Jackson Hole Alliance, calls this an ''Alice in Wonderland'' approach, ''ignoring the reality'' of pipelines, treatment plants, and so on.

He expresses particular concern that gas found in Little Granite Creek would be ''sour gas,'' laced with deadly hydrogen sulfide. This would have to be removed at a ''sweetening plant'' built near the well, since sour gas corrodes pipelines and hence can't be made to travel far.

The gas of the Overthrust Belt is generally sour, and there have been accidents as these fields have been developed. But whether the Little Granite Creek area is part of the Overthrust Belt seems to depend on which geologist is consulted. Mr. Kingwill says the Forest Service does not expect sour gas.

Mr. Hamilton says, ''We're 99.99 percent sure not to hit sour gas; you don't hit that until you get to the Paleozoic formations, and we'll be staying in Triassic and Jurassic rocks.''

The Little Granite Creek issue is proceeding against a larger background of confusion over expansion of the nation's wilderness system. ''RARE II,'' a Forest Service study of roadless areas within national forests, included the Bear Thrust Unit in the proposed Gros Ventre Wilderness in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. But Wyoming's three-member congressional delegation has redrawn the map, taking a ''bite'' out of the proposed wilderness. That bite is the Litte Granite Creek area.

Despite this action, and its approval for Getty's drilling, the Forest Service continues to want Little Granite Creek in the Gros Ventre Wilderness.

But look out, here comes another switchback on the bumpy road. The Department of Agriculture, which has jurisdiction over the Forest Service, has just thrown out RARE II and ordered the Forest Service to start over on RARE III. This move was prompted by a federal appeals court in California declaring RARE II inadequate. So, back to the drawing board.

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