Of an environmental hero and the need for reform

by Paul Larmer

The Bush administration's most enduring mark on the American West may well be the tens of millions of acres of public lands it has handed over to the oil and gas industry -- and the belated backlash the giveaway has spawned.

As if to punctuate this legacy, the Bureau of Land Management -- which oversees mineral rights on public lands -- held its most contentious gas lease sale Dec. 19, making available some 150,000 acres of Utah's magnificent redrock canyon country near Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

In the weeks before the sale, the BLM fielded protests from conservation groups, the National Park Service and even Robert Redford. The agency eventually pulled some parcels, but as it has since 2002, when the White House ordered it to push gas drilling as its highest priority, the BLM proceeded with a controversial sale.

This time, however, a monkey wrench jammed up the works. Posing as a legitimate industry bidder, 27-year-old University of Utah student Tim DeChristopher bid nearly $1.8 million for 13 lease parcels totaling 22,000 acres. He also managed to drive up other bids by about $500,000, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. The BLM, which escorted DeChristopher out of the room once it figured out what was going on, says it may decide to redo the auction. Meanwhile, however, contributions to DeChristopher have poured in, and now he says he hopes to write a $45,000 check to the BLM to hang on to the leases he won. One of his lawyers, interestingly, is former BLM Director Pat Shea.

DeChristopher, who has become a hero to environmentalists, said he was frustrated over the inability of mainstream groups to slow the leasing frenzy: "I don't ever want to have to look back at 2008, and know that there was still a slight chance that we could have done something to make a difference, and I didn't take that chance."

The media ate up his act of civil disobedience, but mostly failed to appreciate the larger context. Over the past seven years, the BLM has leased 17 million acres in the five major oil- and gas-producing states in the Interior West. Stunned conservationists began fighting back in 2005, with administrative protests and lawsuits, but the BLM has rarely listened.

To be fair, the Bush administration is not the first to open the public lands to industry. Ronald Reagan's Interior Department zealously embraced the industrialization of the public domain. Even the Clinton administration, which won praise for a last-minute move that protected parts of the West as national monuments, leased millions of acres to the oil and gas industry with nary a protest -- though that may have been partly because, as John Leshy, the Interior Department's solicitor from 1993 to 2001, put it, "We tried pretty hard to stay out of controversial areas." The Bush administration, by contrast, has not.

Now, the Obama administration has the chance to find a new balance for the way our public lands are managed. It can order land managers to make gas leasing and development just one aspect of their jobs, along with protecting the land, water and wildlife. And it can make it more difficult to put drill rigs in special places such as Utah's canyon country, the top of Colorado's Roan Plateau and New Mexico's Otero Mesa.

It can also expand on one improbable Bush accomplishment. Pushed by requirements in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, the BLM has created seven pilot reclamation teams in Western field offices. These folks try to monitor and assist the hundreds of companies operating on the public lands to reduce their environmental footprint during production. Once the wells run dry, it's their job to make sure that industry erases its roads, well pads and waste ponds so that the land looks much as it did before the drill crews arrived.

These teams are starting to make a difference, but they are sorely challenged by the size of the problem and by weak regulations that still allow companies to walk away without cleaning up after themselves. The BLM estimates that it has reclaimed just 15 percent of 109,000 oil and gas wells abandoned over the past 50 years. Add the 80,000 active wells the agency manages, plus the additional 126,000 wells it will likely approve in the next decade, and you begin to see the scope of the problem.

Tightening regulations and repairing damaged lands is not as dramatic -- or as entertaining -- as disrupting an ill-conceived lease sale. But it is equally important. Let's hope the Obama administration and committed conservationists tackle both sides of the gas boom in 2009.

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