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Know the West

Drilling, wolves, guns and plutonium


"Drill here, drill now," has become something of a political mantra in this election-year summer of high gasoline prices and frustrated consumers. Tack on "pay less," and it's the bumper-sticker slogan for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's national campaign to expand domestic energy production. Many Republicans now running for Congress hope their enthusiasm for drilling will give them a strategic edge over their Democratic rivals. In Colorado, for example, Republican Senate candidate Bob Schaffer and his staff hauled around a mini gas pump labeled "Udall premium" on a campaign tour, blaming spiraling prices on opponent Mark Udall's and other lawmakers' environmental stances.  

Even though boosting domestic oil production isn't likely to significantly affect what consumers pay at the pump, public support for more domestic fossil fuel development and exploration has grown rapidly over the past several months. So House Democrats introduced a limited pro-drilling bill of their own in mid-July even as they resisted Bush administration pressure to lift a ban on drilling the outer continental shelf. The aptly named "Drill Act" would have forced oil and gas companies to drill on millions of acres of leases they already own on federal land -- much of it in the West -- before buying new ones, and required regular lease sales in Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve, among other measures. The bill enjoyed broad support but failed to win the supermajority it needed to pass without amendments.

Those who rally under the anti-wolf slogan "smoke a pack a day" are going to have to hold their fire: Northern Rockies wolves are back under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, at least for now. In mid-July, federal Judge Donald Molloy scuttled Wyoming, Montana and Idaho's plans to hold public wolf hunts this fall when he granted environmental groups a temporary injunction against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to hand wolf management over to the three states, where more than 100 wolves have been killed since the March 28 delisting. Molloy wrote that the federal agency had failed to demonstrate that there is enough genetic exchange between wolf populations to ensure the animals' long-term survival in the region.

Meanwhile, Northern Rockies wolves continue to range farther afield. Wildlife officials in Washington confirmed that an animal hit by a car northwest of Spokane was a wolf. They caught and radio-collared two other suspected wolves in northern Washington. If DNA tests pan out, Washington will join Oregon in confirming its first wolf pack since the animals were eradicated from the states early last century.

Even if they have to wait to hunt wolves, Western gun-owners and sportsmen can take heart in the fact that presidential hopefuls are courting their favor. Democratic candidate Barack Obama touted his strong support of the Second Amendment "rights of law-abiding gun-owners, hunters and sportsmen," in a recent statement. After stopping in Butte, Mont., in early July, Obama condemned the Bush administration for jeopardizing hunting, fishing and other recreational access to federal land in western Montana through its backdoor negotiations with Plum Creek Timber over residential access.


Gas pains in the West

.76 Average gallons of gas a resident of New York state used per day in the first four months of this year

1.7 Average gallons of gas a resident of Montana used per day in the first four months of this year

10-16 Percentage of income the average resident of Socorro County, 
N.M., spends on gasoline

2 Percentage of income the average resident of Hunterdon County, N.J., spends on

10 Average number of cents by which taxes on gas in the West exceed the national average, as of January 2008

4.18 Average price in dollars of regular gasoline in the Western states, as of July 21

+9.4 Percentage change in bus ridership in Denver, from the first quarter of 2007 to the first quarter of 2008

-36 Percentage change in Hummer sales for the first five months of this year, compared to 2007

+24 Percentage change in scooter sales from the first quarter of 2007 to the first quarter of 2008

--Andrea Appleton



"Source Material Involved: A glass vial of Certified Reference Material (CRM) 138 (approximately 0.25 grams of Pu in the form of Pu(SO4)-4H20; isotopic distribution certified at Pu-238 Atom Percent 0.010, Pu-239 Atom Percent 91.805, Pu-240 Atom Percent 7.925, Pu-241 Atom Percent 0.227, Pu-242 Atom Percent 0.033)."

That's the official description of the plutonium that leaked from a glass vial in a National Institute of Standards and Technology research lab in Boulder, Colo., on June 9. The institute's recently released investigation found that, after a researcher accidentally cracked the vial and tried to deal with it, more than a dozen people ended up contaminated with trace amounts of plutonium on their hands or feet or inside their guts (some swallowed or inhaled traces). A tiny amount of the plutonium was also washed down a sink drain, entering Boulder's wastewater treatment system. The investigation concluded that safety procedures and training need to be improved, but that the contamination had not endangered anyone's health. The Boulder Daily Camera editorialized angrily: "The institute has abysmal safety standards ... It was an accident only Homer Simpson could truly appreciate."

--Ray Ring