Everybody knows by now that President Bush and Alaska politicians have targeted the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling — that plan will cause one of the bloodiest battles in Congress this year. But meanwhile, the Bush administration has already encouraged an alarming increase in the rate of drilling in wilderness areas in the continental U.S.
Bush’s National Energy Policy, announced in May, specifies that “total [natural-gas] wells drilled annually will need to double the 1999 level by 2020.” The Bureau of Land Management, which controls about 239 million acres of public lands, has responded by slamming through leasing and drilling permits at an unprecedented rate in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — thus reducing animal ranges, polluting ground water and destroying priceless archaeological sites. “If taxpayers assume that the Department of Interior is conserving their resources, they are very naive,” says a Utah BLM official. “There clearly is an effort to put as much of these resources in private hands as possible.” In fact, an internal BLM memo sent in January to Utah field offices says that staff must “understand that when an oil and gas lease parcel or when a [drilling-permit request] comes in the door, that this work is their No. 1 priority.”
The 2002 BLM planning map marks off large areas of Wyoming for potential drilling — the state is especially attractive with its large reserves of methane, stored underneath water tables in shallow, accessible coal beds. “We are the epicenter of the Bush energy plan,” says Dan Heilig, executive director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “The number of wells proposed in this state will soon reach 100,000. We’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
In July, the BLM cut out public input on a natural-gas development plan for nearly 200,000 acres in the Upper Green River Basin in southwest Wyoming. The basin provides winter habitat for big game, such as pronghorn antelope and elk, that migrate back to the Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks during the summer. Last year, the BLM also approved 133 square miles of seismic exploration — some of it within the largest wilderness-study area in the state — along with 2,500 wells for coal-bed methane in northeastern Wyoming. This group of wells will eventually release millions of gallons of salty Special Report water per day onto the dry ground, depleting aquifers and potentially rendering the soil sterile. The BLM is now considering a ten-year plan for up to 90,000 methane wells in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana.
It’s not a secret that the BLM seeks to fast-track oil and gas drilling. But the methods used by agency officials can be surreptitious. In New Mexico, the BLM has accelerated a project encompassing 250,000 acres of the Otera Mesa and lands near it, a region so packed with wildlife that it’s known as the Serengeti of the West. In Wyoming, residents in the Pinedale area learned that the BLM had approved gas exploration there last summer when they saw company trucks parked in town. In Montana, just twelve days after Bush took office, a long-contested permit was approved to explore for oil in Weatherman Draw, a site sacred to ten Native American tribes.
A BLM official calls the current procedure of leasing lands, and only then performing reviews of environmental impacts, “a fixed shell game.” On a regular basis, he says, “companies have extraordinary access into the permitting process, to the point where they’re allowed to edit and dictate what will or will not be included in the environmental analysis.” George Ruebelmann, an archaeologist who consults for oil and gas companies in Wyoming, says that typically, “the environmental analysis is written with the bias that they’re going to approve the development.”
ON DECEMBER 6TH, two Environmental groups filed the first legal challenge to the president’s National Energy Policy, after the BLM announced it would lease 10,000 acres of canyon lands in southeastern and central Utah. This parcel includes 2,400 acres that are part of the pending Redrock Wilderness Act. The suit angers Utah Rep. Jim Hansen, head of the House Resource Committee, who says, “These groups seem eager to block every form of energy development in this country, except rubbing two sticks together to generate a spark.”
The plaintiffs counter that the lands are not estimated to yield a significant amount of natural gas. “There’s no way anyone could suggest that drilling in these twelve parcels would alleviate any kind of supposed [energy] crisis,” says Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance attorney Stephen Bloch.
The leased parcels include the Lockhart Basin, close to Canyonlands National Park, and Comb Ridge, near the Four Corners intersection of Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. These landscapes are “filled with labyrinthine, red-streaked sandstone canyons,” says Utah wilderness advocate and author Amy Irvine, “with hidden seeps and springs that bighorn sheep, mountain lions, elk and black bear depend on.”
To outsiders, some of the threatened areas in Colorado or Wyoming may not appear to be spectacular. “A lot of people drive through Wyoming on 1-80 and see vast sagebrush flats and think there’s nothing there,” says Mike Evans, a rancher in Saratoga. “But when you look close, you may see a flower that only lives in a five-acre area in the whole world.”
Activists in the targeted oil and gas states maintain that they do not simply oppose every well. “But drilling should be done in appropriate areas,” says Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer Johanna Wald. “This administration wanted to have energy development in national monuments. Congress stopped that, and we’re trying to stop a similar thing.”