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Land Rush
The environment gets steamrollered as the search for oil and gas in the Rocky Mountain West goes into overdrive.

It’s manifest destiny all over again, only this time fuel trucks instead of ox-drawn wagons are blazing the trail. With higher gas prices and growing concerns about our dependence on foreign oil, the energy industry is increasingly looking westward, to the vast reserves in the Rocky Mountains.
There are currently more than 35 million acres of public land in the United States leased for oil and gas drilling, and 25 million of those acres are in the Rocky Mountains. And while there are already 50,000 producing oil and gas wells on western public lands, the next two decades could see at least 118,000 new wells in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana, according to a recent study by The Wilderness Society. 
Conservationists and other westerners worry that the drive to drill isn’t balanced by adequate concern for the environment. “It’s like a moonscape with these wells and these pipelines,” says Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, a grassroots group committed to conserving clean air and water. The BLM [Bureau of Land Management] field offices are under enormous pressure to issue permits and lease land, and as a result, their environmental responsibilities “are falling to the wayside,” she adds.

Indeed, a June 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office found that the majority of the officials in eight BLM field offices in the Rocky Mountains said they had to devote more time to processing drilling permits, leaving less time for environmental mitigation activities, such as field inspections. Further, a study released this past November by graduate students working under contract with the BLM found that 530 of nearly 630 coalbed methane wells and facilities in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming were out of compliance with federal reclamation requirements.

While westerners acknowledge that some level of drilling is necessary for their states’ economy, many maintain that the entire process, from permit distribution to the drilling stage, must be done better before it’s too late. One complaint is that much of the land being leased is unfit for drilling in the first place. In New Mexico, for example, the BLM has opened 95 percent of the Otero Mesa, a 1.2 million-acre area of pristine Chihuahuan Desert grassland, for development. But the resource potential in that area doesn’t look promising—three of the five natural gas wells that were drilled in the greater Otero Mesa area came up dry.

Given that more than half of the leased land in the West is not even being used to produce oil or gas, “there’s really no need to go in and start leasing new areas,” says Jones.

Drilling and the failure to mitigate can cause a range of offenses—from the loss of several acres of vegetation around a drill pad to the fragmentation of thousands of acres of habitat used by animals like mule deer and sage grouse.
A growing number of citizens are taking a stand. In Colorado at least 40 state and local groups, including sportsmen’s, recreation, and conservation organizations, have joined together to support a list of 10 guidelines—which advocate more environmentally friendly practices, such as directional drilling—to help minimize environmental impacts. They’re hoping that state legislatures will draft a bill to support them.
“The techniques are out there,” say Dennis Buechler, a member of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, who consulted on the guidelines. “It’s just getting this change in paradigm across.”

The good news is that a few companies do seem to be working toward that change. Williams, one of the largest natural gas producers in the country, has helped invent a rig that can drill 22 wells from one pad, when conventional rigs can drill only 4 to 6. Such an approach would mean less damage to the surrounding land and quicker completion of the job. Currently, two of these rigs are operating on BLM land.

Still, the best environmental solution will probably come down to looking for alternative sources of energy. “We believe in a balanced use of energy resources,” says Joanna Prukop, cabinet secretary for New Mexico’s Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department. “We’re never going to drill our way out of this energy dilemma.”

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Feature story link to "Sagebrush Showdown."

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