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Busting Out of Boom and Bust

The oil and gas drilling frenzy hits Western public lands

By Joshua Zaffos

Jock Jacober
Colorado rancher Jock Jacober | Photo by David Clifford

In late June, when the snow disappears from the high-country forests, Jock Jacober moves hundreds of cows into the meadows of Coal Basin in Colorado's White River National Forest. Located between 9,000 and 10,000 feet, the mid-elevation pastures are part of the 221,500-acre Thompson Divide, undeveloped public lands that provide important summer livestock forage and essential elk-calving habitat.

From the growing mountain town of Carbondale, Jacober and his three sons operate Crystal River Meats, processing grass-fed beef that he and other local ranchers raise. Started in 1999, the specialty business has grown to distribute to Whole Foods and Natural Grocers supermarkets. Most of the ranchers rely on U.S. Forest Service grazing leases in Coal Basin and other designated roadless parcels in the Thompson Divide. "For 100 years, guys have been running cattle up there," Jacober says. "It's a good place to grow food for the valley."

Jacober, the son of a petroleum geologist, says, "I've watched energy development all my life across the West." Carbondale and Aspen are former mining towns in the Roaring Fork River Valley that were transformed into destinations for skiing and other recreational sports in the 1980s. Down-valley, near the town of Rifle, the 73,000-acre Roan Plateau was a government oil shale reserve slated to solve the 1970s energy crisis until Exxon gave up and triggered a local recession. In the past decade, companies have employed hydraulic fracturing—the use of chemical-laden fluids to crack open and reach shale-rock and tight-sands formations—to drill tens of thousands of oil and gas wells on private and public lands in western Colorado, and the industry isn't done yet. This latest boom in the West's energy cycle threatens the region's landscape on a scale larger than any other.

While ranchers like Jacober hold grazing leases in the Thompson Divide, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has leased the mineral rights to the ground underneath for oil and gas exploration. Since 2008, Jacober and other locals have been working to protect the expansive public landscape.

"Virtually all of the guys we run with think that if you get development started up there, we'll eventually be out of business," says Jacober, who sits on the board of directors of the Thompson Divide Coalition, a group of ranchers, local officials, farmers, river runners, hunters, and environmentalists. "There won't be range for cattle anymore. It'll be range for trucks hauling water and fracking fluid and for pipelines."

Throughout the West, the energy industry has been pushing plans to exploit roadless areas, forests, and rangelands, especially as government agencies have lagged in regulating industrial activities and protecting public lands. Land managers have the power to mitigate drilling damage or to ban it altogether, but they are under pressure to increase domestic energy production. In April, the BLM kept alive unused leases in the Thompson Divide that were set to expire.

"We're not unique," Jacober says. "Every now and again, these places are identified as way too important to trash with energy development. But it takes the public. There's no watchdog."

THE ENERGY INDUSTRY holds leases to oil and gas resources on 38.5 million acres of federal public lands (an area larger than the state of Georgia), based on an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council. That figure encompasses national forests and rangelands as well as split-estate lands, where federal agencies own minerals beneath private properties.

Energy development on public lands has taken a backseat to drilling on private lands in terms of both industry pressure and public attention. Fracking hot spots like the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and neighboring states, the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas, and the Bakken formation in North Dakota mostly underlie private property. The NRDC reports that leases on private lands cover more than 100 million acres.

On private lands, companies with mineral rights are free to punch holes, build roads, and set up equipment regardless of a surface-rights owner's concerns. Drilling on public lands, however, requires scrutiny from citizens and government scientists through the National Environmental Policy Act, and protests and lawsuits can hold up drilling plans.

Nevertheless, public-lands oil and gas production has increased since President Barack Obama took office. Large shale formations, or "plays," across the West remain tantalizing prizes to be exploited. In 2011, energy analysts identified California's Monterey Shale formation as an epic reserve that may hold more than 15 billion barrels of recoverable oil, which would be almost two-thirds of the supply in the lower 48 states. The BLM is proposing new leases for the region, including within the Los Padres National Forest. Existing wells are already being fracked there.
Meanwhile, Jock Jacober worries about the Thompson Divide, where a majority of the leases are in limbo. For justification, all he needs to do is look north to the Powder River Basin.

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