Judge Blocks Effort To Stop 5,000 Converse County Oil Wells

A federal judge has blocked an effort to stop the drilling of 5,000 new oil wells in Converse County, Wyoming.

Leo Wolfson

November 11, 20234 min read

A pumpjack works an oil well in Converse County, Wyoming.
A pumpjack works an oil well in Converse County, Wyoming. (Getty Images)

Gov. Mark Gordon and state Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, are celebrating a federal judge’s decision to block a lawsuit that sought to block 5,000 new oil wells in Converse County in the southern Powder River Basin.

U.S. District Court Judge Tanya S. Chutkan has denied a request for a preliminary injunction to stop the Converse County Oil and Gas Project and dismissed five of six claims brought by a pair of environmental watchdog groups. Chutkan ruled that the plaintiffs did not demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits of any of their claims.

“Judge Chutkan’s decision is a major win for Wyoming,” Gordon said in a press release.

What’s The Issue?

The lawsuit was filed in September 2022 by the Powder River Basin Resource Council and Western Watersheds Project to stop the federally approved oil drilling and any future drilling on the project, claiming that the U.S. Department of the Interior and BLM failed to follow lawful procedures meant to prevent or mitigate environmental harm such as impacts to air quality and wildlife.

“We felt it was important to be a part of the process and stand up for the constituents, recreation and wildlife in Converse County,” said Shannon Anderson, staff attorney and organizer for Powder River Basin Resource Council.

Although the lawsuit was filed against the federal government, the state of Wyoming, Petroleum Association of Wyoming, Anschutz Exploration Corp. and others intervened in the case.

“I have diligently defended Wyoming’s oil and gas industry from attempts to shut down federally approved projects, and I appreciate the ongoing work of our Attorney General’s office to protect Wyoming’s energy industry from dubious legal claims,” Gordon said.

The plaintiffs argued that their members’ ability to “live, work and recreate” in the project area by pursuing activities such as “hiking, wildlife viewing, spiritual renewal and solitude” would be “irreparably impair[ed]” if drilling is permitted to move forward.

They also argued that unless the project was paused, a significant portion of the project would already be built before a final decision is reached, a scenario the plaintiffs now will likely face.

Chutkan argued that the plaintiffs failed to show with any specificity when the alleged irreparable harms would happen. She also criticized the fact the plaintiffs waited six months after the case was filed to submit their injunction request.

Anderson said her organization has no comment on Chutkan’s ruling and is evaluating its next steps.

How Did We Get Here?

In 2013, a group of energy companies submitted a proposed development plan to the BLM to conduct drilling operations within the Converse County Project area. Five years later, the BLM issued a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) evaluating the project, which was approved in December 2020.

It is the only EIS performed on the deep oil reserves of the Powder River Basin across 1.5 million acres of federal, private and Wyoming state land.

Gordon and Boner said the EIS is a result of years of collaboration between stakeholders and an important piece of regulatory stability for the oil and gas industry.

“This decision by an Obama-appointed D.C. judge highlights how out of touch extremist groups such as the Powder River Basin Resource Council truly are,” Boner said in a press release. “I will continue to fight hard to protect our oil and gas industry, the property rights of ranchers and important sources of revenue to our government schools.”

Chutkan is also overseeing former President Donald Trump's election interference case.

The only motion she granted the plaintiffs was denying the intervenors’ request to move the case to Wyoming federal court.

Leo Wolfson can be reached at leo@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter