Drilling ignites battle over Western paradise

Accelerated drilling for natural gas and oil has produced a backlash by an unlikely alliance of diehard conservatives and left-leaning environmentalists.

Special Report

June 05, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

CIMARRON, N.M. - Near the entrance of a pristine national forest area called the Valle Vidal, or "valley of life," a Halliburton tanker truck rumbles past a huge crater among the sculpted sandstone cliffs, herds of elk and ponderosa pines.

It's a blasted circle, two acres wide, around a pit of foul-smelling water, a heap of shattered stone and a hissing 20-foot-tall pump sucking methane gas from the earth. The truck contains yet another shipment of liquid nitrogen, which will be injected into the ground at extreme pressure to crack more rock and release more gas.

This jarring intrusion of industry into wilderness is increasingly common on public lands across the West, evidence of the rising number of gas and oil drilling permits approved by the Bush administration. Six years ago, 1,639 such permits on federal land were approved. Last year, the administration granted more than three times that number, 6,052.

The accelerated drilling on public land is intended to meet rising demand for fuel, but it's also having unintended consequences. The drive to drill has inspired unusual political alliances between liberal environmentalists and conservative NRA members determined to preserve public hunting, hiking and ranching lands.

In New Mexico, an advocacy group called the Coalition for the Valle Vidal has fused Ralph Nader-voting "tree huggers," gun-toting elk hunters, cattlemen and teenagers passionate about saving the scenery beside the largest Boy Scout camp in the world, the adjacent Philmont Scout Ranch.

"Someone once said the only way the Israelis and the Palestinians are going to get together is if they were attacked by someone from outer space. Well, that's what's happened out West, where the oil and gas companies have attacked all of us, and so we have formed some unusual alliances," said Treciafaye "Tweeti" Blancett, a former Bush campaign coordinator from Aztec, N.M., who is now a director of a group called Republicans for Environmental Protection.

"It's happening all across the Rocky Mountain West - in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming - we've formed coalitions with people we never would have talked to five years ago," Blancett said.

Her husband, Linn, a 60-year-old cowboy and diehard Republican, raised a Greenpeace banner in protest after being driven out of the cattle business by drillers who put more than 200 wells on the federal land his family had been ranching for six generations.

The Coalition for the Valle Vidal is facing some powerful opponents, including the Houston-based El Paso natural gas company and the White House, which has ordered an expedited federal response to the company's request to drill.

Administration officials say they have sped up the approval of drilling applications across the West because of soaring energy prices and a rising need for natural gas. Drilling for gas has been subsidized since the Carter administration because burning it produces less air pollution than coal or oil. As more power plants and homes have switched to natural gas over the past two decades, consumption has risen 40 percent.

"Both businesses and American families acutely feel the pinch of high energy costs," said Michael Waldron, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy. "What this administration is attempting to do, through its efforts to increase domestic production, is to ensure there is an affordable, reliable energy supply to meet America's growing energy need."

While much attention has focused on the high-profile battle over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the American public will be more directly affected by similar but less noticed proposals in the lower 48 states, such as those for hundreds of wells in the Valle Vidal, the Bridger-Teton National Forest, the Red Desert and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, in the San Juan National Forest in Colorado, and near the Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado.

Arguments over the environmental impact of drilling are also heating up in Congress. Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, chairman of the environment committee, and others are pushing legislation that exempts from the Safe Drinking Water Act drilling companies that inject liquid nitrogen, sand, diesel fluids and other compounds at high pressure into the earth to crack the rock and release natural gas.

Critics say this hydraulic fracturing taints water supplies in a region where water is scarce. But industry advocates say that studies have shown that fracturing is harmless and that excess regulation strangles the nation's economic health.

"We are not generally going to be drilling into drinking water supplies, and there is no real evidence that hydraulic fracturing has any effects on ground water," said Jeffrey Eshelman, director of public affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

State files suit

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