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Know the West

Ready... fire... aim!

A decade into a massive energy boom, the West decides it’s time to deal with the impacts on the land, air, water and wildlife


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Drilling Could Wake a Sleeping Giant."

There’s an old bumper sticker in Wyoming that reads, "Lord, please give me another boom. I promise I won’t piss this one away."

Well, the Lord seems to have delivered. Statewide, 31,000 wells currently suck oil and gas out of the earth, and plans are laid for tens of thousands more. The state’s highways hum with trucks and drill rigs, and the landscape is riddled with roads, pipelines and wastewater ponds.

Wyoming offers a taste of what’s happening across the West, as energy prices soar to near-record highs, and the Bush administration and cash-strapped governors graciously hold the doors open for industry. The Rocky Mountain News reported in January that energy companies are poised to spend more than $1 billion in 2005 to drill for oil and gas in the Rockies.

For years, ranchers, landowners and environmentalists have been shouting that the drill rigs are rolling without sufficient oversight from state and federal agencies, and that the development is wrecking rangeland, clean air and water, and wildlife habitat. But two recent reports — and a number of the stories in this issue — show that the problems have only deepened.

The first report, compiled by the grassroots Western Organization of Resource Councils, finds that environmental enforcement is sorely lacking. Federal law requires the Bureau of Land Management to inspect oil and gas wells for environmental compliance every three years, but according to the report, the agency only has enough staff to do so every four to 59 years, depending on the field office. While the BLM has added inspectors recently, it hasn’t increased the number of inspections overall, because staffers are too busy permitting new wells. State agencies do more inspections, but they, too, are understaffed.

Even more disturbing is the second report, commissioned by the conservation group Trout Unlimited. Researchers with Bozeman, Mont.-based Confluence Consulting did an extensive literature review of studies on the impacts of oil and gas development on water quality and fish, and came up almost empty-handed. They found no field studies addressing the issue. The limited laboratory work suggests that pollution from oil and gas wells could stunt the growth of trout — and even lead to advisories warning people of the dangers of eating fish from Western streams.

The dearth of scientific information runs deep. The BLM has opened much of New Mexico’s Otero Mesa to drilling, but state officials report that the agency has scant information about how the development will impact water or wildlife. And nowhere is the disregard for science more dramatic than in northwest Colorado, where a Texas company is preparing to drill near the site of an underground nuclear test, despite the fact that it will be two years before federal scientists finish a study of the potential dangers.

Even where agencies have conducted studies, they have sometimes dramatically underestimated the impacts. On Wyoming’s Pinedale Anticline, nitrous oxide emissions from drilling rigs and compressors are almost triple the BLM’s predictions. The Pinedale Roundup reports that the pollution could muddy views in the Bridger Wilderness Area, and locals say the activity has already created a haze around Pinedale.

Agencies have made some improvements. The BLM, for example, has ratcheted up spending on inspection and enforcement at its field offices in Pinedale and Buffalo, Wyo., Grand Junction, Colo., and Farmington, N.M., according to the WORC report. The New Mexico Oil Conservation Division has carried out an aggressive campaign to "shut in" abandoned wells. And landowners report that some companies have been respectful and responsible — even downright pleasant to deal with.

But unfortunately, tales of disrespectful and irresponsible development abound, and landowners have little recourse when it comes to dealing with it. They remain dependent on the good will of the industry, because the boom is leaving regulatory agencies in the dust.

There are still opportunities to set some boundaries on the energy rush, however. On Feb. 15, more than 50 Western wildlife professionals, from a host of nonprofits and state and federal agencies, wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, recommending a slower, more cautious approach. They asked her to reaffirm the BLM’s mandate to manage the land for "multiple use," put some unique places off-limits to drilling, and conduct a thorough scientific analysis of the ecological impacts of energy development.

"Energy is developing at a breakneck pace," says Chris Wood with Trout Unlimited, who signed the letter. "Our message is, ‘Slow down.’ "

J.M. McCord contributed to this report.


Law and order in the oil and gas fields, by the Western Organization of Resource Councils: www.worc.org

Annotated bibliography of the potential impacts of gas and oil exploration and development on coldwater fisheries by Confluence Consulting, Inc.: www.tu.org