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An oil pump keeps a steady pace just east of Durango off Hwy. 160 early this week.  Local residents will see more of this scene courtesy of the new Bush energy policy. The plan, which was signed Monday, further streamlines environmental review in the name of expanded production./Photo by Todd Newcomer

by Will Sands

Local, regional and national oil and gas drilling got on an even faster track this week. On Monday, President George W. Bush visited New Mexico’s Sandia National Laboratory and amidst much fanfare, signed a massive bill and kicked off a new energy policy. As a result, local conservationists are bracing for major local impacts of what they say is an accelerated and short-sighted national energy policy.

Dan Randolph, oil and gas coordinator for San Juan Citizens Alliance, disputed claims that the policy will improve the environment and boost the economy. In fact, the policy will do little to affect the price at the pump or the bottom line on the monthly bill, according to Randolph. Instead, the Bush energy policy gives billions of dollars in subsidies to major energy companies that are already realizing record profits. It also opens the door to even more irresponsible energy development, according to Randolph.

“It’s pretty darned scary,” he said. “The bill is one of the worst examples of irresponsible government that exists. There are massive, multi-billion dollar subsidies for companies that are extremely profitable now, and everyone admits that it will do nothing to ease our dependence on foreign oil.”

Bruce Baizel, staff attorney for the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, concurred that the policy is a product of bad government. He added that area residents will get to see the first-hand impacts of drilling first and asking questions later.

“Homeowners, ranchers, public lands users and the public in general are all going to see an increase in the impacts of energy development,” he said. “This is a single-purposed effort to increase production. Anything that interferes with that is being pushed aside.”

Interestingly, the new energy policy is being enacted during a time of deep suspicion about oil and gas drilling on public lands. A recent General Accounting

Office audit of the Bureau of Land Management revealed disturbing results. A survey was conducted of eight BLM field offices, including the one in Farmington, N.M. The GAO discovered that field work and environmental review are largely being ignored in order to speed the processing of permit applications. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., requested the audit and accused the BLM of neglecting its environmental stewardship responsibilities.

“This administration appears to have lost its sense of balance between granting drilling permits to the oil and gas industry and protecting the natural wonder of the environment,” Lieberman said in a statement.

That the administration is failing to protect “the natural wonder of the environment” comes as no surprise to Randolph and Baizel.

“This just confirms what everyone4 e has been saying all along,” Baizel said. “The BLM has been working harder on approving permits than it is on monitoring and enforcing them.”

The BLM has been charged with failing to adequately review well sites like this one east of Durango. /Photo by Todd Newcomer

Randolph added, “They’ve just been rubber-stamping permit applications and not doing follow-up enforcement. Part of the Bush administration’s plan has been to expedite the processing of permits.”

The new national energy policy does nothing to address these gaps, according to Randolph. In fact, it will only worsen the problem, as evidenced by the consolidation of five field offices into a single Glenwood Springs branch last week.

“The biggest impacts are going to be on BLM land,” Randolph said. “The agency will have even less time to review companies’ applications for new wells.”

The energy policy will echo especially loudly through the Durango area, according to Baizel. The BLM is responsible for overseeing tens of thousands of wells across the border in northern New Mexico. It is also responsible for administering permits on national forest lands in Colorado and would regulate any of the controversial drilling proposed for the HD Mountains Roadless Area just east of Bayfield.

“The bulk of the concern is on the New Mexico side,” Baizel said. “There are a huge number of BLM permits there. But the BLM also administers permits on national forest over here, and they would be responsible for any development in the HDs.”

For its part, the BLM has admitted to being short-staffed. With this in mind, Theresa Sauer, BLM spokeswoman, said that the agency is doing its best to not only process permits but to enforce them.

“It’s just a matter of what we can do,” Sauer said. “We believe in all aspects of the oil and gas program, and we do our best to get it all done.”

The BLM is taking the results of the GAO audit seriously, according to Sauer. The agency plans to fully analyze the findings and see where improvements can be made. “We’re looking at what kind of improvements we can make, seeing what needs to be improved and figuring out what we are able to do,” she said. “Our Glenwood Springs office was recognized as a shining star in the review. Maybe, we can see if we can implement that office’s practices on a wider scale.”

Regardless of what changes may be in store, Sauer added that local areas will have to assume some of the impacts of energy development. She said these kinds of sacrifices are necessary in order for the U.S. to become less dependent on foreign energy sources.

“The president’s energy plan is trying to find resources within the United States to be less reliant on foreign supplies,” she said. “Colorado is a growing part of that energy development. This state has been a slow starter because our resources are in difficult places to get to.”

And La Plata County and its coal-bed methane reserves are a big piece of the Colorado energy picture, according to Sauer.

“In the Durango area, there’s a lot of production, and there are a lot of issues and concerns,” Sauer concluded. “But La Plata County’s coalbed methane is a huge resource for Colorado, and one of the top resources in the nation.” •



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