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A voracious energy policy afflicts our public lands.

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Drilling the Wild

A voracious energy policy afflicts our public lands.

by Ted Kerasote

Rod and gun in hand, and backing the Second Amendment right to own firearms, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have won the hearts of America's sportsmen. Yet the two men have failed to protect outdoor sports on the nation's public lands. With deep ties to the oil and gas industry, Bush and Cheney have unleashed a national energy plan that has begun to destroy hunting and fishing on millions of federal acres throughout the West, setting back effective wildlife management for decades to come.


The Invasion Begins

In his second week in office, President Bush convened a National Energy Policy Development Group, chaired by Vice President Cheney. Meeting with representatives of the energy industry behind closed doors, it eventually released a National Energy Policy, the goal of which was to "expedite permits and coordinate federal, state, and local actions necessary for energy-related project approvals on a national basis."


Put into practice through a series of executive orders, the policy has prioritized drilling over other uses on federal lands, while relegating long-standing conservation mandates from the 1960s and '70s to the back burner. For example, in Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, the Bureau of Land Management has approved over 75 percent of the energy industry's applications for exemptions to work in critical winter range, heretofore closed to protect wildlife?sage grouse, mule deer, and pronghorns, in particular (the Federal Land Policy Management Act of 1976 gave agencies the means to close critical habitat). The BLM has also continued to issue drilling leases while in the process of writing new resource management plans that still await public comment. In addition, the Bush administration is working hard to eliminate Wilderness Study areas?set aside for their scenic value as well as their importance to wildlife. Most disturbingly, Congress is now debating a national energy bill that would codify the policy, making it the law of the land rather than an executive order. Subsequent administrations?be they Republican or Democratic?would be unable to institute a more balanced management plan for our western lands without resorting to new congressional legislation.


The results of these actions?billed as promoting national energy security?have begun to turn vast tracts of the western United States into industrial landscapes. The winners are the energy companies, which have been able to acquire their leases for as little as $2 per acre. The casualties are big game, upland birds, cold- and warmwater fisheries, the traditional interests of hunters and anglers, and the economic welfare of communities whose livelihoods are based on outdoor recreation and ranching.


The High Cost of Natural Gas

The Powder River Basin in northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana?approximately 13 million acres of prairie, escarpments, and mountains?provides the starkest example of how the Bush administration's unbridled energy policy is running roughshod over our public lands. The BLM's final environmental impact statement for the area calls for about 66,000 new coalbed methane (CBM) wells (about 14,000 have already been drilled in Wyoming; several hundred in Montana), 26,000 miles of new roads, and 52,000 miles of new pipelines.


Peter Dube, an outfitter from Buffalo, Wyoming, has already felt these impacts firsthand. "My ranch is out in the sticks," he says, "60 miles from Buffalo, 45 miles from Gillette, and I've had to wait to pull onto my county road because the truck traffic is so bad?with smog like L.A." Pronghorn and mule deer habitat has become fragmented, and his hunters have lost what Dube calls "the aesthetic experience" of being in a remote and quiet landscape.


Roads and pipelines aren't the only way energy development is making wildlife more vulnerable. Wherever there are coal seams, CBM is trapped on the surface of the coal by water pressure. Pumping out the groundwater releases the methane, which rises to the surface, where it's collected. However, each well discharges about 16,000 gallons of salinized water per day?43 million gallons per month for the Powder River Basin alone. Not only are underground aquifers being rapidly depleted, but the discharged water must be put someplace. It's been spread over the landscape; it's emptied into rivers; it's collected in infiltration pits. The salinized water kills forage for wildlife and livestock, and it pollutes waterways. Art Hayes Jr., whose family has ranched on the Tongue River since 1884, told me that the salinity level in the Tongue has gone up fivefold seasonally since a CBM company, Fidelity Exploration, began dumping water directly into the river. Both a tailwater fishery for rainbow and brown trout and a warmwater fishery for smallmouth bass and walleyes have been jeopardized. As president of the Tongue River Water Users Association, Hayes says that he's spent countless days trying to get CBM development done "halfway sanely"?to no avail.


Energy, Over All Else

Western Colorado's Roan Plateau is also potentially facing the same sort of development that's taking place to the north: 20- to 40-acre spacing of well heads, in a land that supports deer, elk, mountain lions, black bears, turkeys, and a genetically pure strain of native Colorado cutthroat trout. Such tight spacing puts in a lot of roads, which fragments animal habitat and displaces varieties of game, making them more vulnerable to stress and poaching. Keith Goddard, who lives in Rifle and whose outfitting business caters to about 100 hunters and anglers each year from across the United States, says, "If the energy companies put in wells at this spacing, I'm out of business because of the stress it causes on game. I'd like to see one pad per 640 acres."


The know-how to secure energy in environmentally sound ways exists, but the will to do so does not. Cheney's National Energy Policy Development Group, in its report on the energy policy, says, "Enormous advances in technology have made oil and natural gas exploration and production both more efficient and more environmentally sound. Better technology means fewer rigs, more accurate drilling, greater resource recovery and environmentally friendly exploration." Why, then, aren't advances in technology like directional drilling being used? Answer: It's more expensive. The casualties of the energy companies' penny-pinching are fish and wildlife.


A New Kind of "Wise Use"

Rampant gas development has also come to my own backyard, Wyoming's Upper Green River Valley, a region that's home to the longest mule deer and pronghorn migrations in the Lower 48. The BLM has permitted 4,176 gas wells with 5,000 to 7,000 more on the way, and I've witnessed pronghorn herds fleeing from seizmic thumper trucks only to be turned around by hovering helicopters.


Despite our dismay at seeing western landscapes transformed in this way, none of us?hunter, angler, wildlife watcher?can discount the need for energy. We use it in our vehicles; we use it to heat our homes and cook our meals. Clearly, something must be done to secure supplies. But only 3 percent of the world's oil and natural gas lies under domestic soils, while we used 25 percent of the global total in 2002. In other words, our energy security can never result from more drilling in our public wildernesses. Of course, the worldwide quest for fuel damages the environment wherever it is unleashed. As Doug Grann, the president and CEO of Wildlife Forever, the conservation arm of the North American Hunting and Fishing Club, points out, we cannot sacrifice the wildlife and wild country of this planet while doing nothing to develop alternative fuels and improving the fuel efficiency of our cars, factories, and homes.


Legal efforts mounted by conservation organizations over the inadequacies of the BLM's environmental impact statements, and input by hunters and anglers to their senators?who are now debating a national energy bill?can affect how much hunting and fishing will be left on these federal lands.






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