It is no surprise that natural gas exploration has changed Pinedale in many ways, some for good and some for bad.
The unique juxtaposition of natural beauty and natural resources has made Pinedale something of an example for how other towns could handle their own energy development.
“I talk to the people in this town all the time, and nobody has ever come up to me and said, 'Hey, Steve, damn this gas stuff!'” said Pinedale Mayor Stephen Smith in an interview earlier this week.
The U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources invited Mayor Smith to testify at a hearing last week to discuss the effects that energy development has had on Pinedale and how things may have been handled better.
“Socio-economic matters should be considered and mitigated at all stages of planning and development in the same manner as physical and environmental impacts,” said Mayor Smith in his testimony last week.
The topic of the hearing was the Consolidated Land, Energy, and Aquatic Resources (CLEAR) Act of 2009, which seeks “to provide greater efficiencies, transparency, returns, and accountability in the administration of Federal mineral and energy resources.”
Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) attended the hearing as a member of the committee and presented a letter from the Sublette County Commissioners addressed to the committee members.
The letter said that Congress needs to promote a streamlined process of energy development and that the CLEAR Act would create unnecessary roadblocks.
It also stated that “there are a wide variety of viewpoints on energy development in our county, and Mr. Smith's view is one, but is probably not in the majority.”
Mayor Smith said that he was not aware of the letter from the commissioners before the hearing. He said he alerted the offices of both the commission and Congresswoman Lummis earlier in the week and offered copies of his written testimony.
“I was really quite surprised when Lummis read a letter from the commissioners,” he said, adding that the commissioners had not contacted him again before the meeting.
The mayor said he did not attend the hearing to voice an opinion on the CLEAR Act. He said his main goal was to discuss the socioeconomic effects of rapid energy development on a small town.
“I didn't go there to make any kind of political statement or try to influence policy in any way,” he said.
Given that 80 percent of land in Sublette County is federally owned, the legislation would have a great effect on the region.
“As a small town, we can't handle this amount of amazing development so quickly,” said Mayor Smith. “We just can't handle it.”
During Mayor Smith's testimony last week, he cited the use of categorical exclusions as one of the causes of the speedy development in recent years.
Categorical exclusions — created by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 — allow the BLM to save hours of time on paperwork by skipping some environmental assessments that could be considered redundant.
However, a Government Accountability Report (GAO) released last week claimed that the Bureau of Land Management's use of categorical exclusions to expedite development “may have thwarted [National Environmental Policy Act]’s twin aims of ensuring that BLM and the public are fully informed of the environmental consequences of BLM’s actions.”
The GAO report found that during the last three years the Pinedale BLM field office issued 1,498 categorical exclusions, more than any other field office in the United States. The exclusions were used in the issuing of more than 80 percent of energy development during the last three fiscal years.
On Sept. 17, Governor Dave Freudenthal issued a comment on the report.
“These categorical exclusions are not categorically bad — some make a great deal of sense,” he said. “We need to cut with a scalpel and not with an axe."
“We're not anti-gas,” said Mayor Smith. “We understand how much is out there, we understand how it can benefit our community, we're not saying 'don't go get it,' but you have to slow things down for us.”
Mayor Smith said that Pinedale is fortunate that the industry has been proactive in responsible energy development, citing the development of natural gas burning engines for drilling and industry goals of decreasing emissions from traffic.
The environmental effects of energy development were also discussed at the hearing, especially the declining air quality and ozone pollution.
“We shouldn't have to sacrifice our quality of life so that oil and gas can harvest that resource,” he said.
Recently the transparency of how royalties and revenue are distributed is being investigated, too.
The town does not control how much money it receives. The royalties from the energy companies are given to the county for distribution.
“The county has been very generous to us,” the mayor said. “If it weren't for that good working relationship with the county, we could really be in a pinch.”
The mayor said the town has received a lot of revenue from sales and use tax, but these funds still fail to sustain the infrastructure.
“Unfortunately there is pretty much a direct relationship between the amount of sales and use tax you get and the services you need to provide,” he said.
In February the Sublette County elected officials — including Mayor Smith, Marbleton Mayor Jim Robinson, Big Piney Mayor Phillip Smith and all three commissioners — sent a letter to Governor Freudenthal detailing the infrastructure projects that the county and towns are unable to fund.
The cost of all of the projects totaled $71.1 million, and the letter said that the county could only afford to pay $8.5 million toward the projects.
The letter stated that while the towns' sales tax revenue has soared, revenue from federal mineral royalty and severance tax has only changed slightly in recent years.
In the county commissioners' letter to the Natural Resources Committee, they stated that energy production in Sublette County accounts for about 97 percent of the county tax revenue.
Also, in his testimony, the mayor said that the town received under $300,000 in revenue from royalties last year.
“We've benefited greatly from the money we've received from the gas companies,” said Mayor Smith.
However, the mayor added that there were many people who chose to live in Pinedale before energy development started to boom and that their desires should be considered also.
“No matter what happens, people will still want to live here,” he said.For the complete article see the 09-25-2009 issue.
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