On April 17, 2007, Ann Morgan got to do something that few Western conservationists have done since 2001: testify before a congressional committee. The subject before the Energy and Minerals Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee was the BLM’s ongoing push to open up as much of the public domain as possible to oil and gas drillers.

Morgan is eminently qualified to speak on this topic: Before she started working for The Wilderness Society, she served five years as the BLM director for Colorado, a state in the heart of the gas boom. Morgan’s full testimony can be read here. She recently spoke with HCN executive director Paul Larmer from her office in Denver, Colo.

PL: Why did you leave the BLM?

AM: When the Bush administration came in and started to make policy changes that put energy development ahead of every other use on BLM lands, I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable carrying them out. They offered me a not very attractive job in D.C., and I proposed instead that they loan me out to the University of Colorado. They agreed.

PL: And now, after teaching for a couple of years, you have left academia and the BLM to work for a nonprofit environmental group. You could have made the big bucks working for industry, like some of your other departed Interior colleagues.

AM: Actually, when I first left, I talked to a couple of oil and gas companies about sharing some of what I know about making oil and gas drilling more sensitive to the environment, but they weren’t interested. They had no incentive because this administration doesn’t require them to do better.

PL: Isn’t the BLM required to enforce what’s called Best Management Practices for gas drilling operations?

AM: The agency could easily do it, but right now it just suggests using Best Management Practices. It’s voluntary. If BLM required Best Management Practices, the industry would do it, then crow about it to their stockholders. And they would still make great profits.

PL: I’ve talked to a few people from the Clinton administration who said this gas boom would have happened in the West even if Al Gore had become president – millions of acres of public land were already leased to energy companies and the price of gas was up high enough to spur the market.

AM: Yes, the boom would have happened. But not like it is now. When I was state director, I didn’t lease in roadless areas; I didn’t lease in proposed wilderness areas. That’s not happening now.

PL: By selling leases to energy companies in those environmentally important areas, the BLM has attracted a lot of negative attention. Couldn’t the agency have avoided the wrath of Westerners by just giving the industry 95 percent of what it wanted instead of 100 percent?

AM: Maybe, but the overall impacts we’re seeing from gas drilling can’t be ignored: When the air quality goes down in our national parks, when migratory routes of elk and deer are disrupted and when wastewater from coalbed methane operations pollutes ranchlands, the conservation community is going to notice.

PL: The Interior Department is making some noises that it is concerned about the impacts of energy development. It recently announced a new Healthy Lands Initiative that would provide the BLM with $15 million to do land restoration and reclamation in heavily impacted areas of the West. This is good news, isn't it?

AM: It’s nice to hear them at least acknowledge the problem, but the initiative is kind of a sham. It looks like some of the proposed projects have been sitting around for awhile and aren’t even located in the gas fields. If the BLM had required companies to use Best Management Practices to begin with, we wouldn’t have to spend public dollars to clean up after them.

PL: Don’t companies have to post bonds that will cover reclamation costs should they walk out of town?

AM: Yes. The requirement is $10,000 per lease, or $25,000 for all leases in one state, or $150,000 for all leases in the country.

PL: That seems ridiculously low.

AM: It is. These bond requirements haven’t been looked at in years.

PL: Now that Democrats control Congress, and the voices of landowners, researchers, and conservationists like you are being heard, will we see changes to this administration’s policies promoting drilling and leasing?

AM: This administration will disregard whatever studies are done or whatever testimony is given. But a new administration can use the information we are gathering to take action.

PL: Won’t a new administration have a hard time moving a bureaucracy like the BLM?

AM: The Bush administration moved very quickly from day one to implement its vision; there is no reason why someone else couldn’t come in and move things back just as rapidly. Even petroleum engineers in the BLM have told me they think things are moving too fast.