(Un)clearing the air

Westerners will breathe the legacy of Bush’s BLM

  • Pat Bagley/caglecartoons.com
 

It took the Vernal office of the Bureau of Land Management seven years, millions of dollars and 584 pages to lay out a resource management plan for 1.7 million acres of public land in northeastern Utah. The document, finalized this fall, ensures that the area, which includes the spectacular Book Cliffs, will be governed primarily as a natural gas field for decades.

In late September, the Environmental Protection Agency's Rocky Mountain office sent a withering five-page critique of the plan to Selma Sierra, Utah BLM's state director. The BLM had not analyzed impacts on ozone levels from some 2,300 wells drilled in the area since 2004, Rocky Mountain EPA official Larry Svoboda wrote, nor had it predicted air impacts from the estimated 6,300 new wells approved in the plan. Vernal also hadn't bothered to include anticipated oil shale and tar sand projects.

When asked about what this means for the region's air quality, Svoboda is blunt: "We think that's a disaster waiting to happen."

After years of loosely regulated energy development under George W. Bush's Interior Department, there's a growing sense that the same kind of disaster could be in store for much of the West. The BLM has used similarly inadequate air-quality assessments to justify new resource management plans allowing vastly expanded energy development in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico over the next 20 years.

For a window into the West's future, look no further than Pinedale, Wyo., where energy development has contributed to unprecedented human health advisories for ozone in a place once renowned for its pristine air.

And the prospect of dangerously dirty air is only made worse, environmentalists say, by the slew of drilling projects and mineral lease sales that the BLM has approved in the waning months of the administration.

Just how nasty things will get remains to be seen. But Utah's skies appear headed for dark times. Svoboda recently sent critical missives to BLM's Price and Moab field offices. Like Vernal, both have newly minted plans authorizing major expansions of drilling on federal lands.

None of them, in Svoboda's opinion, do an adequate job of modeling possible air pollution. The BLM argues that it's impossible to model future impacts when it doesn't know how many oil and gas wells will ultimately be drilled. (Many resource management plans, including those for Price and Moab, don't estimate the extent of future development.) But EPA experts say computer models don't require that level of specificity in order to make legitimate pollution projections.

In fact, it's possible to analyze potential pollution as soon as energy leases go up for auction, something the BLM has resisted doing in other states besides Utah. The agency can estimate the number of wells because it knows where the gas is located and approximately how much is there, says Kevin Golden, an air modeler with EPA's Rocky Mountain office. And the BLM knows how much nitrous oxide and volatile organic compounds — key contributors to ozone — are emitted from drill rigs and the average well. It's even possible, says Golden, to estimate how much impact development will have 50 miles away. In general, though, the BLM analyzes projects separately, instead of assessing the collective impact of all the projects that could be allowed under a given resource management plan, Golden adds. "This is like doing an environmental analysis on the emissions from 12 cars in Los Angeles, when there are really 12 million cars."

High Country News Classifieds
  • WMAN NETWORK COORDINATOR
    WESTERN MINING ACTION NETWORK (WMAN) CONTRACT OPPORTUNITY CLOSING DATE: Feb. 19, 2021 WMAN is seeking a team member to coordinate the various network activities to...
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING TRAIL AMBASSADORS FOR THE SUMMER OF 2021
    Friends of the Inyo's Trail Ambassadors (TAs) support the Inyo, Sierra, & Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests and other partners by providing positive public service, outreach, interpretation,...
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • MANAGER PERMACULTURE LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR
    Permaculture / Landscape Company Manager / Site Lead Red Ant Works, Inc. - 20+ year landscape construction and horticultural care company seeks manager and site...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is looking for a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help grow our membership and presence in the Four...
  • ENERGY AND CLIMATE PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    San Juan Citizens Alliance seeks an Energy and Climate Program Associate to focus on public outreach, education and organizing to advance campaigns to mitigate climate...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    This position provides professional real estate services and is responsible for managing and completing real estate projects utilizing a project management database that is designed...
  • WILDFIRE MITIGATION SPECIALIST
    The Wildfire Mitigation Specialist is responsible for delivering wildfire risk mitigation information, recommendations and programmatic resources to wildland urban interface homeowners, community members and partners....
  • DEVELOPMENT POSITIONS
    Thorne Nature Experience is hiring for a Development Director and Senior Individual Giving Manager. Individuals will work collaboratively with Thorne's Executive Director to develop and...
  • SENIOR PROGRAM MANAGER, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION & ENERGY
    The National Parks Conservation Association, a 100-year-old nonprofit advocacy organization and the nation's leading voice for national parks seeks a Senior Program Manager, Landscape Conservation...
  • BACKCOUNTRY AND FRONTCOUNTRY STEWARDSHIP CREW MEMBERS
    The San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) is hiring a crew of ambassadors to work in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to educate visitors on...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATURAL HISTORY INSTITUTE
    The Executive Director is the chief executive officer of the Natural History Institute (NHI). The Executive Director has broad authority to lead and manage the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    - The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region - The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful,...
  • SENIOR DEVELOPMENT ASSOCIATE
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a Senior Development Associate to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a...
  • TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS
    SEEKING TALENTED TRAIL CREWLEADERS The Pacific Crest Trail Association, headquartered in Sacramento, California ,is dedicated to protecting, preserving and promoting the Pacific Crest National Scenic...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...
  • THE LAND DESK: A PUBLIC LANDS NEWSLETTER
    Western lands and communities--in context--delivered to your inbox 3x/week. From award-winning journalist and HCN contributor Jonathan P. Thompson. $6/month; $60/year.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...