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Drilling firm expands use of protective mats

Moveable wooden structures preserve natural vegetation

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Workers use a grappler/loader to lay down a series of wooden mats at an EnCana drill site in Wyoming's Jonah natural gas field.

Workers use a grappler/loader to lay down a series of wooden mats at an EnCana drill site in Wyoming’s Jonah natural gas field.

Jeff Gearino, Associated Press

PINEDALE, Wyo. — A major energy producer is expanding its use of moveable wooden mats where it sinks new natural gas wells in western Wyoming.

For the past nine months, EnCana Corp. has been laying down 8-by-12-foot mats built from planks around its drilling rigs to help sensitive plants recover more quickly from the booming natural gas development.

"It's going to help reduce initial surface disturbance a heck of a lot, and that's really important to maintaining habitat out here," Paul Ulrich, EnCana community relations liaison, said, negotiating his pickup truck among hundreds of wells already drilled and dozens of new ones going in the Jonah gas field.

Ulrich estimated the mats are being used on about 30 percent of all new wells being drilled now in Jonah.

Conservation groups like the idea but wonder why the mats aren't being used more extensively.

"They're making more money in one well than it would cost for them to install a significant number of those mats," Linda Baker, community organizer with the Upper Green River Valley Coalition.

Ulrich said the mats can only be used on flat ground and not all of Jonah is flat.

The idea behind the mats is to preserve as much as possible the root structure of native sagebrush and grass so the plants recover quicker when the drilling is done. On conventional well pads without the mats, all the vegetation is scrapped off the surface before drilling begins.

EnCana, which is based in Canada, has used the wooden mats successfully on fields in the Canadian tundra and in Louisiana bayous, Ulrich said.

Last November, the company began using the mats in southwestern Wyoming, which like much of the West is a much drier and a more sensitive habitat for plants. Sagebrush, one of the trademarks of this western landscape, is a main source of cover and forage for wildlife.

As of Friday, EnCana has used the mats on 70 well pads. While the company is still analyzing data on survival of sage covered by the mats, it says preliminary results look good.

Baker said developers are proposing to drill more than 3,000 new wells in the Jonah field southeast of Jackson.