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Reno, Nev. • Federal land managers have approved an oil and gas project involving hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in a portion of northeast Nevada identified by state wildlife officials as essential habitat for the imperiled greater sage grouse.
The Bureau of Land Management signed a decision record earlier this month on Noble Energy Inc.'s proposal to conduct oil and gas exploration drilling around Tabor Flats near Wells in Elko County.
The Houston-based company plans to drill a maximum of 20 wells on a combination of public and private lands. Slightly more than half of the 39,445-acre project area is on public land.
"Although this project does occur within both priority and general sage grouse habitat, the analysis has determined there will not be a significant impact to sage grouse as a result," bureau spokesman Christopher Rose told The Associated Press. "Multiple environmental protection measures and project design features are included to reduce the impacts of this project."
Nevada Department of Wildlife officials say they think the area's sage grouse can be adequately protected through the measures, including restrictions on construction activities and traffic during the bird's mating season, spokesman Chris Healy said. State wildlife officials were consulted during the bureau's environmental review of the project.
"There's no doubt we have concerns, but we also understand multiple use (of public land) seems to be the thing everybody is striving for," Healy said. "The key thing is we're not just giving input and going away. We'll be actively monitoring it and be part of the process to do the best we can to protect them."
But Rob Mrowka, a Nevada-based senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said fracking in many areas of the country has resulted in an expansion of oil and gas development and habitat fragmentation for rare and endangered species.
The greater sage grouse is being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Such a listing could prompt restrictions on gas and oil exploration, mining, grazing and other outdoor activities across 11 Western states where the species is found.
"The area of this proposed project has been identified by the Nevada Department of Wildlife as essential and irreplaceable habitat for the greater sage grouse," Mrowka said in a statement. "The last thing these rare, spectacular birds need is gas development in their habitat."
Fracking, which is relatively new to Nevada, also poses a threat to human health, Mrowka said.
Oil and gas developers employ hydraulic fracturing to boost production. The technique pumps water, fine sand and chemicals into wells to fracture open oil- and gas-bearing rock deposits.
The process has been controversial amid concern that fracking gone wrong could taint groundwater with hydrocarbons or fracking fluids containing toxic substances.
Noble Energy officials have said fracking is a proven technology to safely develop Nevada's oil and gas.