WASHINGTON, D.C. - As substances go, natural gas doesn't have much substance. Oh, it's real enough. Mishandled, it can explode. Properly handled, it can heat homes, power vehicles and generate electricity. But being a gas, it lacks solidity. Unless it is liquefied, you cannot see it, much less grasp it.

Natural gas, then, is sort of like money, which these days can be seen and touched only in its "liquid" form of currency. Or like politics, which is also difficult to grasp.

All of which fits the war now raging over drilling for natural gas in the public domain of the Rocky Mountain West. It is a war with substantive consequences - whether the country will have enough affordable energy; how much protection will be granted to the land, water and wildlife. But it is also a war launched by people who stand to make a great deal of money. And so far, it has been dominated by politics.

To appreciate the substance-politics nexus here, it is only necessary to consider the difference between what President George W. Bush said from one May to the next. Bush effectively declared this war on May 18, 2001, with an Executive Order (Number 13212) proclaiming that "increased production of energy ... is essential to the well-being of the American people," and that it was therefore "the policy of this administration that executive departments and agencies - shall take appropriate action - to expedite (energy production) projects."

Translated from the bureaucratese, Bush was saying that more coal, oil and natural gas ought to be produced almost everywhere on the public domain.

One year and 11 days later, standing next to his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, the president proposed spending $235 million to buy back oil and natural gas rights on some 765,000 acres of federal land in that state.

Officially, Bush did not rewrite his executive order to say "increased production of energy is essential to the well-being of the American people except in states where environmental views prevail, my brother is running for re-election, and I'm going to need all the help I can get in 2004." But, translated from the bureaucratese, that's the gist of it.

Meet the "energy impact statement"

The debate over energy development in the Rockies contains obvious echoes of the one over drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. One side says the energy is needed immediately. The other says, no, it isn't, because there isn't all that much of it, because ample reserves exist elsewhere, and besides, that's a very special place.

Echoes, but also differences. Governmentally, the Bush administration needs no congressional approval to allow the drill rigs to roll in the Rockies. Politically, ANWR was famous, while few Americans have heard of the Rocky Mountain Front or the Red Desert in Wyoming, rendering it harder to mobilize opposition.

And developers and the administration have left little doubt that they want to drill in Wyoming's Jack Morrow Hills, Montana's Rocky Mountain Front, Utah's Dome Plateau just outside of Arches National Park (HCN, 5/13/02: Does desert cross cross the line?), and other places of "ecological, geological, and wildlife wonder" in the words of Stephen C. Torbit, the senior scientist at the Rocky Mountain Natural Resource Center of the National Wildlife Federation.

To the extent that the Bush executive order did not convey that message, the first official act pursuant to it did. Seven months after the president issued the order - in Washington, that's quick - the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management issued an "Instruction Memorandum" (Number 2002-053, if you're keeping track) instructing her underlings to prepare a "Statement of Adverse Energy Impact" every time "your decisions or actions will have a direct or indirect adverse impact on energy development, production, supply and/or distribution."

In effect, the administration had created an "energy impact statement," comparable to the environmental impact statements (EIS) required (but by law, not administrative order) for most development projects on federal land.

Applications to drill, pump and pipe may be denied. But to anyone who understands how bureaucracies work, the message of the executive order and the instruction memorandum is clear: The burden of argument is on the denier, and the BLMer who wants commendations on his/her personnel file will deny very carefully and quite rarely.

This pro-producer mind-set has been ordained despite evidence from the pro-producer National Petroleum Council that the country has more than enough natural gas to last for decades, even without drilling in those sensitive areas.

Politics is full of surprises

As usual, policy changes have consequences. The BLM is fast-tracking lease applications, drilling permits and seismic studies. And when the White House Task Force on Energy Product Streamlining completes its work in November, the tracking is likely to get faster yet.

For example, there are now roughly 60,000 wells producing natural gas onshore in the continental United States. The industry has proposed drilling more than 60,000 new ones in Montana and Wyoming over the next ten years. What is on the drawing board, obviously, is a quantum leap in the number of natural gas wells.

Most of these are coalbed methane wells. The good news about coalbed methane is that most of it is shallower - hence easier to get at - than most natural gas. The bad news is that the process for getting it out of ground requires pumping dirty water out of the coal seams to release the methane. "Pump and dump," is what some call it, and it isn't just the usual environmentalist suspects who are upset about it. The Izaak Walton League of America, a most establishment fraternity of fly-fishers, complained last October that this runoff could contaminate wetlands, poisoning waterfowl and wildlife.

"We want to make sure we come out of this process with fish and wildlife resources intact," said Jeff Fleming, the league's conservation director. In that effort, the league has joined forces with Trout Unlimited, and with the big game hunters of the North American Grouse Partnership and the Wildlife Management Institute. Members of these organizations tend to be upper-income Republicans, the kind who can get their senators on the phone.

This is only one of the political complexities facing the administration. Its own Environmental Protection Agency ruled that the EIS for some of the proposed development in Wyoming's Powder River Basin was inadequate (HCN, 5/13/02: Does desert cross cross the line?). Though the federal government holds rights to the gas, most of the surface there is privately owned, and while some of the ranchers don't mind coal-water solution dumped on their fields, some do.

Enough do, apparently, to make Rep. Barbara Cubin, Wyoming's very conservative, pro-development, Republican congresswoman, consider the wisdom of laws giving surface owners the right to limit, if not prohibit, drilling on their land.

"She doesn't have a position," for or against such proposals, said Cubin spokesman Bryan Jacobs. "She's trying invoke a dialogue between people. Maybe there need to be laws to protect ranchers."

But so far, the Bush administration seems more concerned with protecting natural gas companies than protecting ranchers. And natural gas companies are doing what any other business would do while its friends hold power. They are seeking maximum opportunity with minimum restraint, because the restraints cost money, and are a pain in the neck.

The industry is already getting some of what it wants. Whether it will get it all will not be determined at least until November, when the White House Task Force on Energy Product Streamlining completes its work, no doubt not before November 5. That's Election Day.

 

Jon Margolis covers Washington, D.C., from his home in Vermont.