Bush Giving Away Wilderness to Oil and Gas Industry

May 10, 2004

The White House's rush to lease pristine public lands across the Rocky Mountains to the oil and gas industry is showing signs of being little more than a land grab, designed to prevent protection of hundreds of thousands of acres under the Wilderness Act.

A recent study of oil and gas drilling activity by The Wilderness Society found that the gas industry is stockpiling leases and drilling permits on 34 million acres of public lands in the Rockies, but is only producing oil or gas on 32 percent of that land. Over the past 10 years, the industry has received permission from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to drill 25,000 new wells, but has only drilled 19,000. Based on the record pace of drilling over the last few years, it would take several years to finish drilling the wells that have already been approved by the BLM.

While some industry representatives and Republican leaders accuse environmental groups of allegedly causing a slowdown in gas drilling activity, drilling is currently at its physical limit: there aren't enough drilling rigs in the Rockies to satisfy the abundant drilling prospects already made available to the gas industry. Further, some experts suspect that the gas industry is sitting on all that land in order to keep gas prices high -- many firms in the Rockies are posting record profits while families and businesses struggle to pay their energy bills.

"If sensitive areas on public lands were the only places left to drill, the BLM's actions might be explainable," the Denver Post said in a recent editorial. "But they're not. Energy companies have plenty of promising places to drill without invading proposed wildernesses or creating disturbances near parks and monuments."[1]

Meanwhile, the industry continues to push BLM to lease more land in even more remote areas -- many of which had already been nominated in Congress for wilderness protection.

One recent such proposal in Colorado drew the ire of U.S. Rep Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat who has legislation pending to protect nearly 19,000 acres of critical habitat and watersheds in her state's high country. Next month the BLM plans to offer all 19,000 acres for lease to the oil and gas industry.

"I realize that it is not a mistake that these particular areas are picked out for drilling, and all of us intend to protect them," DeGette told the Rocky Mountain News.[2] "(The) vast majority of federal land in Colorado already is open for drilling," she added. "Only a small amount is eligible for protection as wilderness, and the Bush administration should respect that."

The reasons behind Bush's push to give away public lands may be less obvious than they appear. The President's industrial backers and business partners are consistent opponents of federally-designated wilderness, because it precludes industrial activity like road building, timber cutting and oil and gas drilling.

But oil and gas industry executives, working from inside the administration, may have a more pressing reason to give away public lands to their once and future employers.

The energy industry, rocked by the Enron scandal and its own dubious business decisions, is saddled with massive amounts of debt. Large gas companies like El Paso have been forced to sell off major assets in order to keep Wall Street off their backs.

But questionable accounting practices common in the industry encourage gas firms to book potential future profits as a way to improve their earnings outlook. By stockpiling leases and drilling permits, the gas industry could be sacrificing America's wilderness heritage in order to pay off its junk debt.

[1] "Public Lands Under Attack," Denver Post, Apr. 11, 2004.
[2] "Foes seek protection for land Bush plan targets for
drilling," Rocky Mountain News, Apr. 30, 2004.



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