If we don't get our energy here, where will we get it?

  • Sarah Gilman


A few weeks ago, a Texas oilman cornered me at a brewery in the high-mountain town of Ouray, in western Colorado. Some young women from Moab had just taken the table next to my friend and myself, when the fellow wandered over to buy us a round.

Eventually, he revealed that he worked for ConocoPhillips. This didn’t go over well with the Utah ladies, and Mr. ConocoPhillips grew defensive: Did they think the vehicle they had driven here ran on rainbows? When he found out I covered the industry as a reporter, he leaned in tipsily and asked, “Can we have a conversation? A real conversation?”

The answer was apparently no, since what ensued felt like an energy-focused version of writer Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Men explain things to me.

But if he had gotten past his assumption that I was an airy naïf, he would have realized that I mostly agreed with him: As drilling impinges on more communities, those communities need to have “real,” critical conversations about energy development, conversations in which the locals recognize their role as consumers.

Paonia, Colo., where I live and work, recently became such a town. Last December, nearly 30,000 acres in the surrounding North Fork Valley were nominated for oil and gas leasing. Though the proposal was deferred this summer for further study, in November, the Bureau of Land Management announced its intent to auction about 20,000 of those acres Feb. 14.

Given the habitat fragmentation and pollution that energy development can bring, many here have fought the proposal. Some of the earlier leases sprawled across mountain biking areas or sat next to schools. Others encompassed springs that feed the town water system or surrounded irrigation ditches for ranches, organic farms and vineyards. As Peter Heller reported in an essay for Bloomberg BusinessWeek this July, the North Fork Valley “is home to the largest concentration of organic farms in the Rocky Mountains. … The valley produces 77 percent of the state’s apples, 71 percent of its peaches.” The BLM received nearly 3,000 comments on the proposal, mostly in opposition.

“None of (those) issues … are incompatible with oil and gas development,” Steven Hall, BLM’s Colorado communications director, told Heller. Even so, in its latest proposal, the agency removed a couple of the more controversial parcels,   including the one closest to Paonia’s water supply and another containing a popular trail network.

Most of the parcels remain, though. Worse, the sale would occur under the terms of the outdated Resource Management Plan, a 23-year-old document which governs development on hundred of thousands of acres. If the agency waited, it could re-examine the proposal under the updated version -- due in draft this spring -- which, in theory, would allow it to account for advances in drilling technology and changes to the area’s economy, demographics and environment. That might help the agency strike a clearer balance between energy development and other interests.

At an environmental film festival in Paonia soon after the BLM’s decision, the audience booed throughout a Google Earth tour of the parcels still up for lease. When a staffer from the conservation group who hosted the event noted that the mountain biking parcel had been withdrawn, discontent only grew. Many refused to accept any leasing whatsoever.

Opponents believe, as do their counterparts in many communities facing oil and gas development, that some places are too special to drill. It’s a valid view; I often share it. But that raises an uncomfortable question: Are there any places so unspecial that they should be drilled? Mr. ConocoPhillips knows well that few of us in Paonia or elsewhere can say we don’t rely on these fuels -- for heat, for transport, for electricity, for the fertilization of food. Every place matters to somebody. And what patch of Earth isn’t habitat for at least a few wonderful somethings?

As Bobby Reedy, who runs a local auto shop in Paonia, told Heller: “I wanna flick the light switch and know the lights are gonna come on. If it’s not in my backyard, whose is it gonna be in?”

If we continue to insist on living as we do now, maybe we need to see drill rigs from our kitchen windows and hiking trails, even our school playgrounds.

How else can we truly understand the costs of something we use unless we’re confronted with them daily? This isn’t just the machinery of corporate greed; it’s the machinery of our vast collective energy appetite. And if we can’t look directly at it, and can’t accept what it does to our water and air, then it’s time to do more than just fight drilling. It’s time to go on an energy diet.

Sarah Gilman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado, where she is the magazine’s associate editor


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.

Dennis Willis
Dennis Willis Subscriber
Dec 26, 2012 07:56 AM
Every acre of the large landscapes, public estate is special. The problem is we have fallen into a false dichotomy of lands are either special and protected or a free fire industrial zone. Areas that are open to leasing or leased should have requirements prescribing the amount of disturbance and fragmentation what would be allowed. Best management practices and the most modern drilling technology should be expected and required. Much of the issue could go away if the oil and gas industry operated the way they say they operate in their advertising campaigns.
Michael Tarbell
Michael Tarbell Subscriber
Dec 27, 2012 01:09 PM
How peculiar that this identical article appeared in HCN's Goat Blog (see hcne.ws/10ZVKjH) with the title "For Sale: The North Fork Valley", which I think summmed up the situation pretty accurately. I hope the author was not persuaded to retroactively edit the title into this rather generic version for reasons of political correctness. The North Fork Valley is STILL for sale, last I heard.

As to "If we don't get our energy here...", it's pretty clear that, whoever "we" is, is getting energy HERE, so they can sell it over THERE. This has nothing to do with energy self-sufficiency or independence. See, e.g., "Fracking for Foreigners" (http://www.prwatch.org/news[…]s-backs-natural-gas-exports).
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
Dec 28, 2012 10:46 AM
Hi Michael--
Thanks for your comment. I repurposed the blog post as a Writers on the Range column for broader publication through our syndication service. Because papers from all over the West publish pieces they receive through this service, editor Betsy Marston changed the title to be clearer and more enticing to a wider audience who might have no idea where or what the North Fork Valley is.

As to your point about exports, the vast majority of natural gas produced in the U.S. is still burned in the U.S. for the simple reason that the only practical way to move it right now is by pipeline. Yes, there are several liquid natural gas terminals in the works right now, but this is an enormously energy intensive and expensive way to move the fuel, and is even more politically unpopular than fracking. Even if all of them are built, you won't see more than a fraction of U.S. gas going overseas. Meanwhile, the gas produced in the Rockies is headed to West Coast and Midwest markets, not down to the Gulf where the U.S.'s existing LNG terminals are. As a matter of fact, the U.S. is the globe's largest consumer of natural gas, and it does indeed still have to import natural gas to meet domestic demand -- about 8 percent, even with the glut of shale gas produced in the recent boom that dropped the bottom out of the natural gas market. Please see the federal energy information administration for more information: http://www.eia.gov/[…]/index.cfm?page=natural_gas_imports

--Sarah Gilman
Associate Editor, High Country News
Michael Tarbell
Michael Tarbell Subscriber
Jan 01, 2013 01:10 PM
Hi Sarah, thanks for your reply. I've been away from the computer, here is a tardy response:

Your points are well taken regarding the current disposition/movement of U.S. natural gas resources. There is no question that, for better or worse, the majority of U.S. natural gas production will be consumed domestically.

But oil & gas companies are so furiously ramping up the intensity of extraction that even U.S. demand can't keep up. I am aware of the assessments/projections of the EIA (see, e.g., their Annual Energy Outlook), and indeed, these and other government data indicate that the U.S. will be a net exporter of natural gas within 8 years, and a net exporter of liquified natural gas within 3 years. We are ALREADY a net exporter of refined petroleum products such as gasoline and diesel... in fact that is our TOP export, even more than weapons.

One might wonder, naively, why aren't we stockpiling this excess production, in the interest of 'energy independence'? Well, because everybody involved, both government and industry, knows that this would only briefly delay the inevitable... for example, at 2010 consumption rates, the ENTIRE U.S. TRR (Technically Recoverable Resource) of shale gas would meet U.S. natural gas demand for less than 20 yrs; the entire Marcellus shale, which contains vastly more gas than the proposed North Fork Valley lease area, would last less than 6 yrs.

So, does it really make sense to let an already heavily subsidized industry become even more obscenely bloated with profit, while they foul our water and air to extract and sell what amounts to a pathetic, short-lived crutch? The fossil fuel industries KNOW this is a dead end resource that's not going to make us energy-independent, not going to rescue us from reliance on foreign 'terrorists', or anything of the sort. Their sole motivation here is simply PROFIT. They mean to sell, to whoever happens to be lined up at the trough, every ounce of fossil fuel they can extract, as fast as they can, WHILE they still can.

As such I think your question (If we don't get our energy here, where will we get it?) may be misapplied here... it's reminiscent (even if unintentionally) of the absurd canard often voiced by industry proponents, i.e., that the NIMBYs should buck up and 'take a hit for the team', for the sake of the American way of life, or some such. That is not the situation at all. Rather, this is not acceptable in ANYONE'S backyard... it is demonstrably dangerous, toxic, wasteful, short-sighted, and intended solely to benefit privately-held companies through the exploitation and destruction of public resources.

Yes, we CAN get our energy here. But not on these terms. Meanwhile, as you suggest, an energy diet is called for, until rational source(s) and infrastructure can be developed. But speaking of politically unpopular, recall Jimmy Carter barely escaping with his life for even suggesting that we might turn down the thermostat a few degrees.

Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
Jan 07, 2013 05:21 PM
Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Mike. I think you may be missing my chief argument though, which is that the real problem here, ultimately, is massive human consumption of energy resources, whatever they are. Specifically, I'm referencing utility scale projects. If it's coal, we're strip mining and pit mining and pumping carbon into the atmosphere. If it's hydro, we're destroying fisheries, species, whole habitats. If it's solar, we're paving over endemic plants and endangered species. Et cetera and so on. The demand for energy is the root cause of the problems we fight (and of course, underlying that, uncontrolled human population growth). Would you really argue against reducing energy use? No matter how you slice it, most of the energy produced in the U.S. is used here, for the simple reason that Americans are, per capita, the hungriest energy consumers in the world, especially in terms of natural gas. Isn't that something to correct? Is it wrong to encourage people to take at least partial responsibility for an industry they support through their actions if not their philosophies?
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
Jan 07, 2013 05:26 PM
Also, it should be noted that even if the U.S. became a net exporter of LNG, that would still represent only a small portion of the U.S. natural gas market, since we receive so little LNG relative to the domestically produced non-liquid natural gas we burn in power plants, furnaces, industrial operations etc.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Jan 07, 2013 08:50 PM
Sarah I don't think anyone has ever more succinctly articulated my thoughts on environmental protection and domestic energy production. I hope your piece is republished many times.
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
Jan 08, 2013 10:02 AM
Oh, and just for the record Mike--the headline is not my question. I didn't write it and I don't intend it to suggest NIMBYism is bad. In fact, I'm driving at something a little more like what you suggest in the end of your last comment, which is that: If we can't accept it, why should we expect anybody else to? Which of course forces the question: Should we use these fuels as we do if we're so uncomfortable with the environmental consequences? And Robb--thanks very much for the positive feedback. It's been interesting reading all the responses.
Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Jan 08, 2013 10:29 AM
I've long argued that we should put some of our potentially most damaging resource extraction and use right in our backyards precisely because the proximity will help ensure it's done right. If we continually push the problems to remote areas because of NIMBYism then problems are hidden from sight and there will be less push to do things the best, and often expensive, way. This applies to oil and gas, nuclear power, mining, and biofuels. Heck, it even applies to things beyond energy like logging. We Americans have to take responsibility for our resource use and seeing the impacts may well be a driver of reduced consumption. As it is, out of sight is out of mind. Thanks for bringing the issue up Sarah.
Dawn Stover
Dawn Stover Subscriber
Jan 08, 2013 02:01 PM
Great essay, Sara! And it's wonderful to see the comments section used for engagement that expands thoughtfully on the ideas raised, rather than the nasty vitriol that passes for comment on most websites.
Doug Smith
Doug Smith Subscriber
Jan 08, 2013 06:37 PM
Does anybody care that the landscape of the West is being obscured by the massive wind turbines everywhere the wind blows and a landowner can be bought off. I don't care if the energy is free, is it worth permanently marring the vistas and landscapes of the West?
Luanne/Michael Tarbell
Luanne/Michael Tarbell Subscriber
Jan 11, 2013 03:12 PM
Hi Sarah, another delayed response.

Didn't mean to make it sound like I was berating you about the headline question. I understand why it took its present form, and I further gather that we're more in agreement than not on this issue.

As to your question, "Would you really argue against reducing energy use?", I would say, of course not, and I don't think I've submitted anything thus far that would suggest that.

But I would note that it's not energy use per se that's the problem, i.e., there is no inherent ecological harm in, say, transforming electrical energy into mechanical work. Clearly the problem lies with the destructive and wasteful ways we PRODUCE that energy, and the similarly foolish ways we utilize it.

It's also clear, as you note, that the U.S. is a monster per-capita energy hog (although see, e.g., Kuwait). The Earth simply could not support a population of 7 billion people if they were all consuming resources at the U.S. rate... indeed, even the existing situation is unsustainable. As I think you perceive, for any given lifestyle (i.e., rate of resource extraction/consumption, waste generation, etc), there is a corresponding global carrying capacity, and we have clearly exceeded it. That is, in a finite time, this system will collapse, perhaps irreversibly.

So then, a rather more subtle question is, can we, or should we (presuming we still have time), try to settle on something like a 'target' lifestyle, calculate the corresponding global carrying capacity, and reduce (as necessary) the global population to a level at which such lifestyle could persist in equilibrium with the environment indefinitely? I think it's beyond us, but it's an intriguing concept.

It's often argued that there are historic and existing examples of lifestyles that are of such minimal impact that the Earth could support an additional X billions of people. Well, yes, but that is not particularly compelling, any more than pointing out that the whole world's population could fit into the state of Texas. There's no question that, with sufficient sacrifice of comfort, capabilities, and freedom of movement, substantially larger human populations are possible.

But why obsess over how to stuff ten pounds of crap into a five-pound bag? A factor of 10 reduction in global population might well allow us to have (most of) our cake and eat it too. No need for a mass culling, just stop having so many kids... the numbers will take care of themselves.

Of course, China tried something like that, to the sheer horror of Western civilization. But we should probably be grateful for whatever time that bought us, as they, and most of the developing world, now queue up for SUVs, air conditioners, and iPads. Given our own history, who are we to admonish them not to?

Michael Tarbell
Michael Tarbell Subscriber
Jan 11, 2013 03:22 PM
Note- my previous post is shown as submitted by Luanne/Michael Tarbell, whereas I am solely responsible for that particular rant. My profile seems to have spontaneously changed after my earlier posts, hopefully it's correct now, and my wife won't be accosted on the street -Mike
Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
May 29, 2013 11:05 AM
RE: Gilman's statement, "If we continue to insist on living as we do now, maybe we need to see drill rigs from our kitchen windows and hiking trails, even our school playgrounds."

For what it's worth, I, for one, don't "continue to insist on American's continuing to live as we do now" or as we have since the post-WW II era, for that matter. I continue to insist that, for the most part, the American people have, and continue to, dramatically use more than our fair share of the word's finite resources (See the chart below for a good illustration of that)....all while Americans (and our lawmakers, and people like Mr. ConocoPhillips) largely eschew efforts to reduce consumption, increase energy efficiency/recycling, etc.

I also believe that over-population, in America and world-wide (as we are north of <a href="http://www.census.gov/popclock/" rel="nofollow">7 billion people, growing rapidly</a>) is a serious problem, which is one of the reasons I got 'fixed' years ago and my wife and I didn't pro-create.

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