Energy plan eyes the Rockies

Land managers and environmentalists wait for the details

  • Gloria Flora

    Jon Christensen

Gloria Flora had been having a good month. On May 7, a federal judge upheld the former forest supervisor's 1997 decision to ban oil and gas development on parts of Montana's Rocky Mountain Front. A few days later, Flora traveled from her home in Helena, Mont., to Redfish Lake in Idaho, where she spoke to an appreciative crowd from the Idaho Conservation League.

On May 17, President Bush's energy policy hit the streets.

"I knew what was coming, so it wasn't like my mouth was hanging open or anything," says Flora, who left the Forest Service in 1999. "But I found it sad, and odd. It's as though the leader of the free world has put the vehicle in reverse. He's taking us back to the past."

For Flora, the saddest part of the 168-page report was an oblique reference to her decision on the Rocky Mountain Front. As supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National Forest in central Montana, she had placed a 10-to-15 year ban on oil and gas drilling in her forest's section of an energy-rich geological formation (HCN, 10/13/97: Forest Service acts to preserve 'the Front'). Her decision was a victory for environmentalists, tribes and many local residents, all of whom had pushed for years to protect the Front's jagged granite peaks and diverse wildlife.

The report from the president's energy policy team says that many such protections are "appropriate," but it recommends that the secretary of Interior "review and modify - restrictions where opportunities exist" (see commentary page 5).

The policy hints that forest supervisors and monument managers can expect not only more drilling on and near the public lands, but also more pipelines, power plants and electric transmission lines. With many of the top spots in the Department of Interior still open, agency staffers at all levels are scrambling to figure out the fine points. "We haven't heard anything," says Bonnie Dearing of the Lewis and Clark National Forest. "Not a single word."

"We're always hearing rumors, but we don't know what they mean," adds Gary Slagel, the interim superintendent of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in eastern Montana. "We’re not getting the information we need."

The lean is on

The details of the energy policy may be foggy, but it's clearly focused on coal, oil and natural gas. The Rocky Mountains are rich in natural gas, which is fast becoming the country's dominant source of electricity. So the report is quick to point out that 40 percent of the gas on federal lands in the Rockies is off-limits to exploration.

That sounds like a big number, but the details tell a different story. A recent report from the National Petroleum Council, an industry advisory group to the secretary of Energy, says that only 9 percent of the gas-rich lands are closed to leasing or "surface occupancy" by drill rigs and other equipment. Another 32 percent of the lands are subject to seasonal and temporary closures, usually put in place to protect breeding wildlife.

These numbers don't include the new national monuments in the Rockies, two of which have some natural gas potential. Those monuments, the Canyons of the Ancients in southwestern Colorado and the Upper Missouri River Breaks, honor existing leases but are closed to new leasing.

Rolling back the year-round restrictions, including those in the new national monuments, wouldn't be easy. A reversal of the Rocky Mountain Front ban, for example, would require another environmental impact statement and years of painful politics. Though the secretary of the Interior can influence management plans for the monuments, says Larry Finfer of the Bureau of Land Management, major boundary changes would require the approval of Congress.

Changes to seasonal and temporary closures would also require environmental review, but the partial restrictions may be more vulnerable than the high-profile drilling bans.

The day after the president released his new policy, he signed two executive orders. One requires agencies to consider the impacts of land-use restrictions on energy supply, distribution and use; the other calls for agencies to "expedite" energy-related projects.

Flora says her former colleagues in the federal agencies may already be feeling the heat from the top. "There's probably a lot of subtle pressure to cooperate, framed in very polite words," she says. "I'm sure the lean is on."

The "lean" may also affect federal lands with few existing protections, such as the Red Desert in southern Wyoming. Even Mac Blewer of the Wyoming Outdoor Council describes the area as a "gold mine," and the Bureau of Land Management had long planned to increase energy development in the Red Desert's Jack Morrow Hills. But last November, a visit from then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt promised to change those plans. Babbitt asked the Bureau of Land Management to come up with a new "preferred alternative" for its environmental impact statement, one that would favor wildlife and scenery over oil and gas drilling.

The administration's new direction "could throw that whole process out of kilter," says Blewer. "We could be in a lot of trouble."

The four P's

For all the Bush administration's eagerness to grab for gas, the industry may not be ready to step up to the plate. Gas prices have shot up over the past three years, and industry officials say they're already maxed out. "There aren't enough rigs and people to get it out," says Ken Wonstolen of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. Though he's pleased that the administration wants to review existing restrictions, he says, "I don't know if (the new policy) is going to have any dramatic effects at all."

Supply is only one of the bottlenecks in the region's energy network, says Wonstolen. "We talk about the four P's - producers, processors, pipes and power generators," he says. "We have problems with all four of those."

Though the administration's promised increases in production have gotten most of the attention, other parts of the energy infrastructure are also giving environmentalists and land managers cause for concern. Dozens of gas-fired power plants are in the works in Washington, Nevada, California, Arizona and other states, and the administration’s policy promises to smooth out their regulatory paths.

Jon Shumaker, an archaeologist whose work helped establish the new Ironwood Forest National Monument in southern Arizona, is almost singlehandedly fighting a $1 billion power plant planned for just outside the monument's boundaries. "The brown clouds over Phoenix and Tucson are merging," says Shumaker, "and this plant is going to finish the job."

Arizona Gov. Jane Hull wants to make sure her state's new monuments don't stand in the way of the power-plant expansion. When Interior Secretary Gale Norton asked governors for their comments on the monuments, Hull asked for boundary changes that would open up access for transmission lines.

At the same time, many Western politicians are unhappy about a policy recommendation that would grant eminent-domain authority to the federal government for new transmission lines. The Western Governors' Association, worried about the possible condemnation of private property, has formed a task force on the issue. Republican Sen. Pete Domenici and Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman, both of New Mexico, and Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho all have voiced strong opposition to the proposal.

With support from different segments of the political spectrum, says Gloria Flora, activists like Shumaker might ultimately have public opinion on their side. She hopes the administration will eventually have a series of hearings on its policy, not unlike the Forest Service’s tour for its roadless rule. "I dare them to have 600 public meetings on this energy policy," she says. "They'd be fun. They'd be more than fun."

Michelle Nijhuis is an associate editor for High Country News.

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