I'm a third-generation Colorado native, and for me, the Rockies have always been all about blue skies and fresh air. Yet I'm old enough to remember the brown cloud that used to hover over Denver. I also remember that after amendments to the Clean Air Act took effect in 1990, I could once again see Pikes Peak from 100 miles away.
Unfortunately, our long vistas are being clouded over again, this time by the oil and gas industry. Its supporters immediately – and predictably -- denounced Ken Salazar's farsighted new direction for the Department of the Interior.
In his first weeks in office, Interior Secretary Salazar made several important decisions: He suspended the issuing of 77 BLM leases in Utah that would have allowed drilling near some of the West's most iconic national parks or on lands proposed for wilderness designation. This was not a great loss for the energy industry, which already has 3.6 million acres of Utah's BLM lands iunder its control but not yet in development. Drilling those contested leases would have been an unnecessary sacrifice of our public lands.
Secretary Salazar also drew fire for his February decision to suspend the Bush administration's new round of oil shale lease sales for “research, development, and demonstration.” I remember "Black Sunday," the infamous day in 1982, when Exxon's attempt to squeeze oil from shale went bust, devastating communities on Colorado's Western Slope. The water and energy now necessary to extract oil from shale are enough to make this new go-round another bad bargain. We need to have lots of questions answered before we charge off in pursuit of this perennial will-o'-the-wisp.
Perhaps most important, Salazar has announced that he will make the development of renewable energy on public lands a top priority. That's a move that makes perfect sense. A study by the American Solar Energy Society estimates that in Colorado alone, renewable energy and energy efficiency already account for over 90,000 jobs. Cleaner energy and a cleaner environment will bring a diversity of industries to provide jobs for the region's people.
The decision to promote renewable energy is also a huge step toward clearing the West's air and maintaining the values that attract so many to the region. The enormous increase in oil and gas drilling in the Rockies over the past eight years has contributed to alarming declines in regional air quality and damaged wildlife habitat, water quality and cultural resources. The most recent case study is rural Sublette County, Wyo. Drilling there for natural gas has so fouled the air that Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal had to request official dispensation as a “non-attainment” area – and this was in a rural community that only a few years ago enjoyed crystal-clear air.
Perhaps it is the clouded vision so often caused by oil and gas development that that has led many Westerners to overestimate the industry's economic importance. Although still an important player in some local economies, the industry has not been a large part of the broader regional economy in the last three decades -- even during prior booms. It certainly hasn't been one during the most recently ended boom. Oil and gas drilling accounts for less than 1.5 percent of jobs and 1.3 percent of income in the Rocky Mountain states. Contrary to what we've been told by the industry, it does not drive the region's economy, and it should not be allowed to drive other industries -- and our blue skies -- away.
Recently, I visited the Pawnee Buttes in northern Colorado. The horizon was rimmed with wind turbines silhouetted against the sky, revolving mightily. They weren't the only things using the wind; a pair of prairie falcons spiraled above the cliffs. Windy days like this clear the air and remind me of the Colorado skies I grew up with. They also serve to remind all of us that our region is blessed with abundant renewable energy resources that can be carefully developed to create new jobs, not to mention cleaner air.
Westerners are descended from settlers who seized the hope of striking out in a brand-new direction. Now we have the opportunity to embrace Ken Salazar's vision of an energy future that moves us away from polluting fossil fuels and towards sustainable economic growth -- and clearer skies.
Michelle Haefele is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, and works as an economist for The Wilderness Society.