Running on Empty
The next president will inherit an over-drilled, pockmarked western landscape. If wildlife, including sage-grouse and mule deer, is to have any chance of rebounding, this country’s energy policy will need a major overhaul.
Viewing the natural gas boom in western Colorado through the eyes of Bob Elderkin, a retired federal land manager, it’s clear that the pressure to rechart this country’s energy policy intensifies at every turn. Driving along remote Piceance Creek, our car windows rattle from the constant 18-wheeler truck traffic on a rutted road once dotted with family ranches and plied by the occasional beat-up pickup. As we climb the mesa north of the Colorado River near the town of Silt, Elderkin points out a half-dozen new drilling pads that have appeared since his last visit just a few months ago. We’re in the middle of a 10-year-old boy’s Tonka Toy dream, with yellow bulldozers, backhoes, graders, tanker trucks, dump trucks, and $40,000 American-made pickups—Chevy Silverado 3500s, Ford F-350s, Dodge Ram 3500s—clogging the roads and roadsides.
Another day we fly over the Roan Plateau and Piceance Basin in a small plane, tracing an extended tableau of roads, compressor stations, drilling rigs, pipelines, and processing plants. “Anymore, you can’t hardly recognize this place,” says Elderkin, shaking his cowboy-hatted head in disbelief. “I just think it’s wrong the way they’re doing it,” he says, referring to the heedless rush that has transformed many parts of the rural West, like this one, into industrial zones. “And they all know they could do it a lot better.”
Doing it a lot better should be the next president’s mission, as concerns over this country’s energy supply—and demand—continue to ripple through our economy and politics. During the past eight years the cornerstone of America’s energy program has been President George W. Bush’s belief in increasing domestic oil and gas production primarily by removing bureaucratic and legal constraints to drilling on public lands. The administration’s single-mindedness “took a lot of people’s breath away,” says John Leshy, solicitor for the Interior Department in the Clinton administration. The Bush policy, Leshy says, boiled down to this: “Lease it and drill it and do it fast.”
This pro-industry push, especially in the Rocky Mountain West, has been wildly successful at opening new areas to drilling, but it hasn’t curtailed spiraling energy prices and it leaves a daunting environmental legacy. The next president will inherit a western landscape riddled with drill pads and rigs, as well as tens of thousands of pending leases awaiting federal approval to develop. Deciding any new governing rules or oversight for all this future activity will fall to the next administration.
Meanwhile, there is much to repair. Migrating herds of mule deer, pronghorn, and elk as well as birds including sage-grouse have seen their habitat fragmented and overrun. Brian Rutledge, executive director of Audubon Wyoming, says there has been an 83 percent decline of sage-grouse wherever there’s been full-field drilling. “We know what the impacts are,” Rutledge says, especially on gallinaceous birds like the sage-grouse. “When we see leks [breeding grounds] wink out, almost 85 percent of the time it’s in conjunction with development.” Air and water quality have also deteriorated, and rural communities are reeling from these fast-paced changes.
Thankfully, Leshy and other experts say, the next president will have many important tools at his disposal to address the damage done. Some of them agree that natural gas, which remains an important fuel source that burns cleaner than coal or oil, can be extracted using more environmentally sensitive techniques. Additionally, the federal government, after acting like an industry cheerleader for eight years, can exercise more authority over energy development by buying back leases in wildlife-rich areas and ensuring that environmental regulations are followed. Most important, says Leshy, currently a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, the next president can “restore some balance to the system” by sending a message that “the oil and gas industry is no longer in charge of the public lands.”
Elderkin is one rural westerner who would like to see the government tighten its reins. At 69, he has seen energy runs come and go. His career spanned the oil boom near Gillette, Wyoming, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He moved to Colorado in 1974, just before the heady oil shale times, to manage a bonanza that never came. Elderkin retired from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in early 2001, well after the oil shale bust had reshaped Colorado’s rural economy and just as the natural gas juggernaut took off.
Nothing he has witnessed comes close to matching the current West-wide onslaught. He has a ranch near Silt that’s perched on a slope above the Colorado River floodplain and surrounded by shade trees, his beloved Arabian horses, and the thrum of energy development up nearly every valley to the south of his property. Many of his neighbors have gas drilling rigs planted like displaced Texas derricks in fields once irrigated for orchards, alfalfa, and pasture.
Elderkin figures his spread will get a rig someday, though he doesn’t have anything to say about when or where, since he owns only part of the mineral rights under his property. A classic ornery old Western cuss with a brushy mustache, “All Around Cowboy” belt buckle holding up his denim pants, and aging eyes that now peer through trifocals, he’s pretty upset that a landscape he worked for decades is being sacrificed for gas extraction. “The sheer size of this thing is different from anything anybody’s seen before,” he says. “Before it was acres. Now it’s entire counties.”
Citizens, increasingly, are fighting back. Pinedale, once a quiet ranching town at the southern edge of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, had five ozone alerts last winter because of the gas field activity. Linda Baker, a community organizer for the Upper Green River Valley Coalition, was joined by ranchers and old-time conservatives—Republicans and Democrats alike—in a May “sit-in” at a well pad outside Pinedale to bring attention to the community’s growing health problems, like respiratory ailments, brought on by the development. “People who wouldn’t normally be caught behaving like a hippie were out there,” she says. “There are angry people in this town who are willing to stamp their feet and say, ‘This is the line right here.’ ” Coal-bed methane development in Wyoming has altered both the quality and quantity of water around the Powder River Basin. In Colorado alone, according to the Oil & Gas Accountability Project, an environmental group, between January 2003 and March 2008 the gas industry was responsible for more than 1,500 spills, which unleashed a host of chemicals into streams and groundwater.
The extent of the boom’s impacts is slowly being confronted by western governors, state regulating agencies, county governments, and local citizens like Elderkin—after many of them were taken by surprise. In Colorado, Governor Bill Ritter has pushed for slower leasing and stricter regulations to protect wildlife on the scenic Roan Plateau, where herds of mule deer summer. “These regulations would add balance to the boom,” says Gary Graham, executive director of Audubon Colorado, who has worked with the governor’s office to pass the rules. (As of this writing, the BLM had rebuffed the governor’s plans, but those decisions may be appealed in a new administration.) In Wyoming, a deeply energy-dependent state, Governor Dave Freudenthal has said that the federal leasing program should be approached with more caution, and Montana politicians pushed to allow conservation groups to buy back energy leases in sensitive areas along the Rocky Mountain Front that are less desirable for drilling.
Nowhere, though, is the need for a course change more apparent than in Washington, D.C., which controls the fate of some 637 million acres of public land held in trust for the American people by the federal government. Senators John McCain and Barack Obama have both pledged to take climate change more seriously (see “Face-Off,” page 56), and with that promise should come a fresh look at an energy future clouded by global warming, rising energy prices, and more intense international competition for oil and natural gas. Both presidential contenders have indicated they would support a return to true “multiple use” of public lands rather than an unwavering emphasis on energy extraction, and greater support for the nation’s environmental laws. McCain has pronounced himself readier to continue policies that would accentuate domestic drilling, while Obama has stressed greater conservation efforts and investment in a wider range of renewable technologies.
Their task in the West, to find a balance between preserving the region’s wide-open spaces and tapping its vast energy supplies, can hardly await the inauguration. What happens in the waning days of the Bush administration, as well as the agenda set by the next president and a couple of key governors, will help define this iconic western landscape for the next generation and beyond.
A perfect economic, political, and technological typhoon helped create this situation: new deep-drilling techniques, America’s insatiable appetite for energy, surging overseas demand, growing concerns about the environmental costs of coal-fired electricity, rising natural gas prices—and an administration intent on increasing domestic energy production at any environmental cost.
As this storm gathered, domestic deposits were already in short supply. U.S. natural gas production has been declining steadily since the early 1970s, as fields in places like the Gulf of Mexico matured. Then, as worries about global warming intensified, the natural gas industry started promoting itself as “the clean-burning fuel” (which is certainly true from a combustion standpoint, especially compared with coal). When investors began to get skittish about the possibility of carbon regulations that would disproportionately affect coal and saw the potential for higher profits, electricity producers turned to natural gas–fired plants; the increased demand for natural gas, in turn, drove up prices.
Speeding the trend were breakthroughs in an old technology called “hydraulic fracing” (pronounced “fracking”) that allowed energy companies to drill in gas fields they knew existed but couldn’t reach economically until the late 1990s. Fracing involves injecting chemicals mixed with sand deep underground, fracturing the rock, and permitting access to coal-bed methane and “tight sands” deposits of natural gas. For energy companies, new fracing techniques were the keys to the kingdom; rising prices supplied the treasure.
At the same time the Bush–Cheney administration executed policies to accelerate drilling permits, especially in the West, and industry zeroed in on the Rocky Mountain region (see “The Mad Gas Rush,” March 2004). In 2005 Congress passed the Energy Policy Act. The bill’s fine print included exemptions from environmental laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act for the industry’s “fracing fluids,” a chemical stew that is still not regulated. In some cases, “seasonal stipulations” that restricted some industrial activity during key wildlife migration or mating seasons flew out the window. “Categorical exemptions” allowed for pinched environmental reviews that ignored cumulative impacts. One result: “in-fills” that permitted energy companies to construct more drilling pads on smaller parcels of federal land across the West without assessing all the potential threats to wildlife, air, and water.
As a result, the number of approved applications for permits to drill (APDs) rose 11 percent, to 3,580, after Bush’s first year in office—and have climbed steadily since then, reaching an all-time high of 6,581 in 2007. Today an astounding 44 million acres—an area about the size of North Dakota—in five states are under lease for oil and gas development, according to an analysis of federal records by the Wilderness Society. And the rush isn’t over. Audubon Wyoming’s Rutledge believes the Bush administration is attempting to hurry up and “sell every remaining lease and remove all the flexibility for management” from future administrations. “It’s ‘leave no APD behind,’ ” he says.
Lands where rush hour used to mean spring migrations of ungulates like mule deer and pronghorn antelope and where greater sage-grouse leks were more prevalent than roughnecks have become 24/7 gas factories. “I tell people I think God had a sense of humor that he put the biggest gas reserves in the U.S. underneath the largest deer herd in the U.S.,” says Jeff Madison, a natural resources expert with Rio Blanco County in Colorado, home to tens of thousands of mule deer in wintertime. “Then he sprinkled sage-grouse around on the top of it to make it really interesting.”
For decades locals have called the Piceance Basin in Colorado “the deer factory.” John Ellenberger, a retired Colorado Division of Wildlife big game manager who started working in the Piceance in 1976, can’t believe the area’s transformation. “Back then if you saw five or six trucks on the Piceance Creek road driving from Rio Blanco, that was a busy day,” he says. “Now we’ve got four to five trucks going by every 10 minutes. I’m sure there’s going to be huge increases in the amount of roadkill. We’re gonna get whacked big time by it.”
Pinedale, Wyoming, has seen even more intense development than Colorado’s Piceance Basin. Hall Sawyer, a biologist hired by energy companies to assess the effects of gas development there on mule deer populations, found a one-third drop since the boom began. “We know what we had before drilling,” he says. “We’ve been able to quantify those changes.” Other herds that faced development pressures did not experience similar declines, he says. Furthermore, in the winter of 2007 biologists documented how 21 pronghorn antelope were killed in a single truck accident caused by a driver hauling a water tank to a gas field.
Meanwhile, sage ecosystems that support nearly 300 bird species, including sage-grouse, passerines, Brewer’s sparrows, and sage thrashers, are fast disappearing with the increased density of drilling and the accompanying road, pipeline, and drill pad construction. The sage-grouse, in particular, could loom as a sword of Damocles over the federal government’s policies—and industry’s access to these lands (see “Sagebrush Showdown,” January-February 2007). If the embattled sage-grouse were listed under the Endangered Species Act, federal law would almost certainly force a slowdown in future energy development in the same way that the northern spotted owl reduced logging in the 1990s. “If they continue business as usual, it will spell a listing,” says Rutledge.
Last February, under pressure from a Congressional oversight committee after a spate of controversial decisions under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated a new review of the sage-grouse, an important step toward a fuller, more comprehensive assessment of the bird’s status.
Fortunately, there are plenty of things a President Obama or a President McCain can do. Steve Belinda, a former BLM biologist who worked in the Pinedale area until he left in 2006 to work for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, says that although leases between the federal government and an energy company are important legal documents, they do not represent a free pass to drill on public lands. “It’s almost an urban myth” among energy companies, he says, that once a lease has been sold, the federal government can’t require the companies to abide by stricter guidelines than are currently in place. Belinda says the BLM retains full authority to manage its lands the way Congress intended, by balancing environmental protection and mineral extraction. “Just like any private landowner,” he says, land managers have the right to insist: “You can come on my property, but you’re gonna do it my way.”
In many cases, says Belinda, companies have already identified “best management practices” that can significantly reduce their footprint. In just as many cases they have chosen not to pursue such practices as directional drilling, where one pad can host many drilling rigs heading in different underground directions, which helps decrease the surface disturbance caused by the roads, pipelines, and traffic that accompany every drilling pad. Some companies, unless prodded by oversight agencies, tend to do the minimum required of them, skimping because of bottom-line concerns. However, some small steps are forthcoming. Limiting activity during certain seasons to help wildlife, for example, which industry has resisted, is being reconsidered in Colorado’s proposed plan put forth by Governor Ritter—and loudly contested by industry. Already in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, says Rutledge, the BLM has identified “core areas” of sage-grouse habitat and will delay some coal-bed methane development in an effort to avoid listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act.
Meanwhile, some industry and government officials are scrambling to mollify critics. Several energy companies are building pipelines to carry away some of the condensate, or liquid waste, instead of hauling it away in tanker trucks that require more roads that further fragment habitat. Pending federal legislation would declare a part of the Wyoming Range just northwest of Pinedale off-limits to drilling and would allow some leases to be sold to conservation groups or even back to the federal government.
A new president could also insist that Congress include a bigger budget for enforcement and monitoring instead of stacking the bureaucracy with people whose sole purpose is to “expedite” new drilling. Even more important, says Baker of the Upper Green River Valley Coalition, “We have to quit believing that more natural gas and more oil and more coal are going to save us.” Most experts agree that the United States cannot drill enough oil and gas on federal lands to meet its energy demands.
Back at his ranch near Silt, Bob Elderkin pauses to point out a ringed turtle dove sitting in a Chinese elm tree. He believes it’s possible to drill without completely sacrificing a landscape that supports mule deer, sage-grouse, elk, and trout. In the five main Rocky Mountain gas-producing states, the Wilderness Society estimates, 126,000 new wells are already planned to come online, compared with nearly 33,000 APDs that were approved in the West between 2001 and 2007. “The next president needs to be more aware of the impact of a lot of what we do,” says Elderkin, who agrees absolutely that the Rockies’ natural gas should be drilled. “Let’s go get it,” he says. “But you don’t have to destroy the area in the process.”
Daniel Glick, a frequent Audubon contributor, is a Colorado resident and the author of Monkey Dancing: A Father, Two Kids and a Journey to the Ends of the Earth (PublicAffairs).
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