Someday, chickens will come home to roost

 

From the air, part of New Mexico’s Carson National Forest looks like a spider web that’s been carved into the landscape. Here on the 33,000-acre Jicarilla District, more than 700 gas wells and a maze of over 400 miles of associated roads crisscross the land.

While companies have been leasing this New Mexico forest for gas development since the 1950s, the federal government has doubled the well density in the past five years, from one well every 320 acres, to one well every 160 acres. Over the next 20 years, the number of wells in the area will double, says Mark Linden, the Forest Service’s regional geologist.

The impact to the land has been significant. Traffic seems constant, with trucks hauling water from gas wells and oil company employees driving to read meters. A fine layer of sandstone dust rises from the dirt roads in a haze; in places, litter covers the ground.

This is the landscape of the West’s latest energy boom. In the past six years, oil and gas companies have nearly quadrupled the number of drilling permit applications they’ve submitted to the federal government. That’s translated into the Bureau of Land Management issuing an unprecedented number of drilling permits for public lands in Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. In fiscal years 2004 and 2005, the agency handed out over 6,000 new permits each year.

"I’ve seen the most dramatic change you can imagine in the past three years," says Bruce Gordon, president of EcoFlight, who has flown throughout the West for over 20 years. "Fly 30 miles in any direction in the Rocky Mountain West, and you see oil and gas drilling rigs and wells and the network of roads that accompany them. It’s out of control."

On-the-ground inspection is minimal. In the past six years, BLM field offices, which are also responsible for Forest Service lands, met their annual environmental inspection goals only about half of the time, according to a June 2005 Government Accountability Office report. Buffalo, Wyo., is the field office with the highest drilling-permit workload, and it achieved only 27 percent of its environmental inspection goals in fiscal year 2004.

Public-land agencies don’t have nearly enough people to contend with the new workload. While the Southwestern region in New Mexico has hired a few additional people in the past several years, the Intermountain region, based in Utah, hasn’t been that lucky, says Barry Burkhardt, assistant director for minerals and geology. "We’re defaulting to staff people that don’t have the level of experience that would raise my comfort level," he says.

Yet the solution for some field offices is troubling. In the past few years, some field offices in Nevada, Wyoming and Utah have used consultants to conduct environmental reviews; these consultants were paid by the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, a lobbying group for the oil and gas industry.

Even if there were more competently trained field officers, the law doesn’t offer much of a security blanket. In most cases, the BLM has to inspect oil and gas wells only once every three years to check for leaks, road erosion or other environmental problems.

If, in all that unsupervised time, something goes badly wrong, there isn’t enough money set aside to clean up the damage to land, water or air. Current bond regulations date back to 1960, and only require $10,000 per lease, regardless of how many wells are drilled. Often, there are as many as four wells drilled per permit. The difference between the amount covered by a bond and actual cleanup could cost taxpayers as much as $1 billion, according to a 2004 Associated Press analysis of federal records.

It’s as if we were creating the conditions for a fire without any fire hydrants, and it’s almost certain to result in future problems. I have no right to complain about oil and gas development, of course. I like energy. I take long hot showers. I adore my electric waffle maker. I like a house with lots of lights on. I’m not proud of this, but until we start developing renewable energy like solar and wind, we’re stuck with our dependence on oil and gas.

Even so, we can take better precautions as we drill. We’ve been in this pickle before with logging, damming and over-grazing, but we keep finding ourselves surprised by the unintended consequences.

Rebecca Clarren is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes about environmental issues in Portland, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.