Love the gas, not the drill

 

I have a confession to make: I like natural gas. Every morning at five minutes before 6:00, I wake up to the gentle whumph of the gas stove kicking on in the family room. I then get out of bed, tap on my son’s door and call, "Time to get up," and plant myself in front of the miraculous dancing flames that never consume the glowing fake logs.

The warmth allows me to imagine that I never crawled out from under the covers. Gas is also nice and clean. There’s no sooty mess like you get with a woodstove or with coal-fired beasts like the one I fed every day in the basement of our last house.

But my enjoyment of natural gas brings up a conundrum that many an oil company executive has eagerly pointed out: How can someone who uses natural gas be anything less than a hypocrite for opposing drilling in the West? Don’t we have an obligation to produce as much energy as we can here at home?

Hypocrisy is a dogged companion in this world, where the simple act of buying shoes brings up a moral dilemma of international dimensions. Anyone who maintains a strict don’t-drill-in-my-backyard stance while warming their bottom, or firing up their vehicle, with the dregs of the Carboniferous period — or, for that matter, while complaining about this country’s political dealings in the Middle East — keeps good company with hypocrisy.

But to be opposed to drilling in the West’s few remaining pristine landscapes does not make one a hypocrite. Nor does insisting that the industry tread as lightly on the land as possible. As numerous reports have highlighted, the vast majority of the West’s oil and natural gas reserves are available to industry, whether on private or public lands. Some 90 percent of the 270 million acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management is open to oil and gas leasing. And new technologies, such as directional drilling, make it feasible to tap these resources without having to build destructive networks of roads and well pads everywhere.

The real dishonesty about this energy rush can be found in the assertion by some that our nation’s political stability and energy supply will be jeopardized if the industry hasn’t unfettered access to every last fume under the West.

Here in western Colorado, this hyperbolic line of reasoning is playing out in the battle over gas drilling on the Roan Plateau, a beautiful chunk of unroaded mountain that is a paradise for people who hunt and fish. Local governments and thousands of conservationists of all political stripes have told the Bureau Of Land Management that, while they don’t oppose sensible gas drilling on the lands below the plateau, they don’t want to see development on the top.

Yet, based on its record around the West, and its management plan, I wouldn’t bet on the agency preventing drilling on the mesa top. Similar stories are unfolding at Otero Mesa in New Mexico and Wyoming’s Red Desert, where the federal government seems determined to develop coalbed methane, despite widespread public opposition.

The truth is that our country will not have long-term energy security even if we allow the drillers into every last untouched environment in the country. The Bush administration knows this, but lacks the vision and political will to deviate from the myopic views of its industry friends. While giving lip-service to alternative energy sources and conservation, it’s energy plan — now being debated by Congress — focuses largely on providing more subsidies for fossil fuels and opening up wildlands to drillers.

Reasonable people in industry, federal agencies and the environmental community understand that this country must start aggressively investing now in non-carbon-based alternatives, such as wind, hydrogen, geothermal and solar. They understand that our ongoing responsibility to the land outweighs any boom. Just as buffalo hunters, timbermen, cattle barons, and gold miners have come and gone in the West, so too will the gas drillers. And when they go, we will be left with the land in whatever condition we have allowed them to leave it in.

So, all you conservation-minded folks out there: Go ahead and light that burner without guilt even as you promote sensible oil and gas development in your backyards and, where possible, invest in alternative energy. Let’s hope that the designers of heaters figure out how to replicate the clean, comforting flames of natural gas — without the environmental costs.

Paul Larmer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado, where is executive director and publisher of the nonprofit paper ([email protected]).

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds