Oklahoma vs. the West

This dispute includes drilling, wilderness, guns and climate change

  • Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., holds up a poster with a quote declaring hydraulic fracturing safe, during a Senate Republican news conference last summer on the need for a bipartisan energy bill

    Bill Clark/Roll Call via Getty Images
 

Note: This is a sidebar to an HCN magazine cover story: Dr. No: How Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn -- and his colleague, Sen. Jim Inhofe -- run roughshod over the West

---

The biggest piece of environmental legislation in decades -- the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 -- might have been "of 2008," or been passed in various forms even earlier, were it not for Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn.

The Omnibus Act bundled 164 conservation efforts into a massive package that designated 2 million acres of new wilderness and increased the wild and scenic river system by 50 percent. It helped enable buyouts of oil and gas leases in Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest and ratified wilderness deals that were negotiated on the ground in Idaho's Owyhee County and Utah's Washington County. Many Western environmentalists, ranchers, county officials and other stakeholders were involved in creating the Omnibus.

But the act itself can be blamed on Coburn, which is why it's known around Capitol Hill as "Tomnibus." "What he did was put holds on virtually every bill that came out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee," says Paul Spitler, a high-ranking Wilderness Society staffer based in Washington, D.C. Coburn blocked so many individual bills in 2008 that supporters decided to lump them together into the omnibus package in early 2009, hoping to pass all 164 measures at once. They succeeded, but not without a fight.

At Coburn's insistence, the Omnibus Act was "read (on the Senate floor) until the wee hours of the morning, which dragged out the timeline for an extra day," says Spitler. "And at that point, he said, ‘OK, you guys can go home now.' "

Coburn again drew the ire of Western environmentalists in September, by holding up passage of five popular wildlife-protection bills, one of which -- the Crane Conservation Act -- was sponsored by a fellow Republican, Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo. Oregon's Sen. Jeff Merkley, California's Sen. Barbara Boxer and Washington's Sen. Maria Cantwell -- all Western Democrats -- were also among the five bills' sponsors. Probably the most popular one would have banned the "animal crush videos" that Wayne Pacelle, head of the Humane Society of the United States, describes as "the vile depictions of staged scenes in which scantily clad women maim and torture animals for the sexual gratification of viewers." Coburn said those bills were a distraction at a time when the Senate should be addressing the deficit.

"One can understand Sen. Coburn's interest in fiscal restraint," Pacelle wrote in his Humane Society blog. "But in his case, it is an obsession, and it borders on a mania."

Stories like this justify Coburn's nickname, which plays off his medical degree and the name of the villain in an old James Bond movie: "Dr. No." And "No" might as well be the middle name of Oklahoma's other ultraconservative senator, James Mountain Inhofe. Both have used their Senate tenures largely for one purpose: Obstruction. They're effective advocates for the causes they believe in, slowing or stopping legislation and regulations they oppose. They've also attracted national attention by taking contrarian, often-controversial stances, and by giving a prominent voice to beliefs that are far out of the mainstream. They help give extremism credibility.

Inhofe has spent much of his career working to undermine or totally dismantle environmental protections. As chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee from 2003 to early 2007, he often held hearings that were more like kangaroo courts. In one 2003 hearing on climate change, he pitted two climate-change deniers against one scientist representing the mainstream view. That summer he held a similarly biased hearing on mercury pollution: A lone voice expressed the majority view that mercury is toxic and regulations are needed on the power plants that release 48 tons of airborne mercury every year, while two experts testified in favor of the opposite view. The Bush administration subsequently moved to dramatically weaken Clinton-era mercury regulations, a rollback later defeated in federal court.

Inhofe also opposes efforts to protect polar bears by limiting the carbon emissions that cause climate change, denouncing them as "an attack on our economy and our energy security." As a leading climate-change denier, he's worked to block any significant action on the problem, including the environmentalists' best hope -- the cap-and-trade bill that died earlier this year -- even as climate change threatens the West, contributing to drought, a forest beetle crisis and record-breaking wildfires.

Inhofe saves some of his hottest rage for the Environmental Protection Agency, which he's called "a Gestapo bureaucracy." In 2006, when EPA staffers based in Denver went into natural gas fields with infra-red cameras to detect pollution, Inhofe attacked the agency and tried to pressure the employees to back off. In 2009, he called for a criminal investigation into the EPA, charging it with suppressing evidence that climate change doesn't amount to much. "They've been cooking that science since 1998," he told Fox News.

"He seems to really have a long-term vendetta against the EPA," says Scott Thomasson, domestic policy director for the Progressive Policy Institute, a moderate left-of-center think tank. "(It's) so deeply ingrained at this point that he has a presumption of incompetence and malice about everything that they do."

Meanwhile, Coburn, a longtime friend of the National Rifle Association, used legislative trickery to make it legal to carry loaded guns in national parks, despite the strong opposition of the National Park Service. He slipped the amendment into the Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rights Act of 2009.

Earlier this year, Coburn blocked Senate approval of a $3.4 billion payment to Native Americans to settle a class-action lawsuit over the Department of Interior's longtime mismanagement of mineral royalties on tribal lands. (That case is not yet settled.) In 2009, he tried to block Senate confirmation of Hilary Tompkins, a Stanford-educated New Mexico Navajo, as the top lawyer in Obama's Interior Department. (The Senate eventually confirmed Tompkins.) In 2008, he opposed a sweeping $35 billion improvement of the Indian Health Service, even though many Western senators of both parties backed it and a total of 83 senators voted for it.

Both of the Oklahoma senators strongly support the oil and gas industry. They've repeatedly backed federal subsidies and sought to increase drilling, including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, while resisting tougher regulations, fuel efficiency and conservation measures. Inhofe led the fight to carve out an exemption in the Safe Drinking Water Act for "fracking" -- the high-pressure pumping of chemicals to free up natural gas in underground formations, a process many Westerners believe threatens water quality. This theme of the senators' influence is felt every day in Western states where drillers are constantly claiming more of the landscape.

According to the League of Conservation Voters, during his terms in the U.S. Senate and House, Coburn has voted against environmentalists' positions from 87 to 100 percent of the time, depending on which session you focus on. Inhofe has voted against environmentalists 96 to 100 percent of the time. That's another way the Oklahoma "nos" are heard around the West.

---

Related stories in this Oklahoma package:

Dr. No: How Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn -- and his colleague, Sen. Jim Inhofe -- run roughshod over the West

Editor's note: How outsiders shape the West

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.