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LAY OF THE LAND

Oil wells or antelope | Poisoning Whales | W Watch | Dirty old king coal | For the record | Updates

Wish You Weren’t Here

Bush officials would love to explore our protected wildlands too—with oil drills

by Reed McManus

President Bush has already expressed his eagerness to drill for oil in the biological heart of a national wildlife refuge in Alaska’s Arctic. But why stop there? Administration officials and their Republican allies in Congress have been poring over maps of public lands in all 50 states with the zeal of a family planning its summer vacation—except that these guys are searching for places to plunk down oil and gas wells.

The Interior Department first revealed its wish list in a draft report to President Bush’s energy task force that was leaked to environmental groups this spring. The federal lands it is considering opening up to oil interests include 17 million acres in the West that are wilderness study areas (places protected while they are being considered for formal wilderness status). The administration also suggested nonwilderness areas, most in Bureau of Land Management domain, where Interior officials might be able to explore for petrochemicals without as much controversy. To grease the wheels, the Bush administration has suggested revising BLM or Forest Service management plans that “unnecessarily restrict development” and giving the BLM more power to approve oil or gas leases on Forest Service lands even when the Forest Service or other agencies disagree.

This spring, the House Resources Committee--led by industry-friendly Republicans--conducted hearings to stake out national monuments where drilling might be profitable. Representative James Hansen (R-Utah) claimed analysis by the U.S. Geological Survey showed huge potential for oil and gas in the monuments established in the waning days of the Clinton administration. In fact, the agency’s report showed “moderate or high” potential in only 5 of the 21 recently created or expanded monuments.

The new national monuments deemed most likely by the USGS to have oil and gas deposits are Canyons of the Ancients in Colorado, Carrizo Plain and California Coastal in California, Hanford Reach in Washington, and Upper Missouri River Breaks in Montana. (Most of Canyons of the Ancients was already leased for oil and gas before the monument was established in January, and it’s the state-controlled waters that surround California Coastal National Monument, not the protected rocks themselves, that might yield oil.) The USGS also reported that Hansen’s particular focus, 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in his home state, might have large coal and coal-bed gas reserves.

Other wildlands in the surveyors’ scopes include areas the Sierra Club has fought for years to protect: the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana’s Lewis and Clark National Forest, whose land-use plan bans drilling in sensitive areas; 37,000 acres adjacent to Gros Ventre Wilderness in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest, which won protection from drilling this past December; and the 600,000-acre Red Desert in Wyoming, prized for its rugged beauty and herds of elk and antelope. The departing Clinton administration had forbidden exploration in the Jack Morrow Hills area of the Red Desert and ordered a new management plan that gave top priority to conservation, but that plan is now in limbo.

Environmentalists want to ensure that the country’s natural heritage doesn’t drown in the new rush for oil. All but 5 percent of federal public lands in the Rocky Mountain region controlled by the Bureau of Land Management are already open to exploration and leasing, and President Clinton set aside less than 2 percent of BLM land as national monuments. “These are some of the most spectacular lands left in the West,” says Jeff Widen, associate director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. “They’re a tiny portion of the public land that’s out there. To talk about opening them up is just crazy.”

Ironically, public protest of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has put these western lands at greater risk. In March Bush acknowledged that opposition to opening the refuge may be insurmountable (though his administration has since reaffirmed its arctic pipe dreams). But the president still wants to expand domestic energy development, and included millions in tax incentives for oil exploration (along with cuts in funding for alternative energy sources) in his budget proposal to Congress.

Bush claims that the latest drilling technology won’t harm public lands. “There’s a mentality that says you can’t explore and protect land. We’re going to change that attitude,” he told reporters this spring. But even if they shared his faith in gadgetry, few environmentalists would trust the president’s commitment to protecting wildlands. Bush revealed his real priorities when he told reporters that Clinton-era national monuments should be judged on their “cost/benefit ratio.”

Implicitly acknowledging that a move to haul drilling gear into national monuments, wilderness study areas, and other off-limits areas would be unpopular even in a summer with looming energy shortages, the Bush team has proposed that “uncontroversial” wildlands be considered for drilling first. Once word gets out, it’s doubtful any of these areas will be free of controversy.

Click here for more information on the Bush energy plan.


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