Collusion alleged in San Luis Valley

Allegations are flying that the oil and gas industry and Bush Administration have gotten into bed together east of Durango. Efforts to drill in Colorado’s newest wildlife refuge have been tainted by improper collaboration between industry and officials, according to newly disclosed documents.

The Canadian firm, Lexam Inc., is currently trying to drill exploratory wells in the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, a 92,500-acre sanctuary near Crestone. The refuge is so new that members of the public are not even allowed to visit it. In the fight against the bid to drill the protected acreage, the Citizens for San Luis Valley Protection Coalition filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The suit revealed e-mails, memos and other records that point to collusion between industry lobbyists and lawyers in the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of the Solicitor. Opponents of the drilling allege that revisions by industry attorney and officials significantly misrepresented the likely impact of drilling in the Baca NWR.

The documents include handwritten notes on internal drafts emphatically directing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to assess the drilling impacts of Lexam’s plan. In addition, Department of Interior attorney Thomas Graf invited Lexam to help limit the scope of the environmental assessment. In this vein, Lexam attorney David Bailey advised officials to eliminate discussion of the cumulative impacts of drilling on the refuge. Bailey also handpicked industry consultant ENSR to conduct the study. Graf then instructed ENSR to not consider the long-term development impacts if the exploratory wells found natural gas. Lexam was then allowed to line-edit the environmental assessment. The records also point to a discussion between industry and officials on ways to circumvent public comment.

The documents came to light only after protracted legal fights led by a coalition concerned about the impact of development on the refuge itself and the Unconfined Aquifer, an enormous underground water supply.

“It’s unbelievable that local citizens must keep going back to federal court to find out what’s going on while industry simply calls upon their friends in the Solicitor’s Office to grease the skids for their project,” said Travis Stills, an attorney with the Durango-based Energy Minerals Law Center.

The Baca NWR is located next door to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and protects the Unconfined Aquifer as well as the largest concentration of wetlands in the Southwest. The federal government purchased the refuge for $33 million in 2000 to protect its “unique hydrological, biological, educational and recreational values.” However, the Baca mineral interests were not secured in the purchase agreement.

The Citizens for San Luis Valley Water Protection Coalition and the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council are currently asking the Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a full environmental impact statement on the drilling plan.

“The government should consider all options, including buying out the mineral rights to protect the refuge,” said Ceal Smith, of the water protection coalition. “Not only has the government rejected a hard look at the impact of drilling, they’re playing games to make sure it comes out just the way industry wants. These people have no shame.”


Xcel Energy to retire power plants

As La Plata County’s power supplier, Tri-State, works to build a new coal-fired power plant, Colorado’s other supplier is decommissioning two of its own. Last week, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission approved Xcel Energy’s plans to cut CO2 emissions by retiring two aging coal-fired power plants and focusing on intense development of renewables and efficiency. The approval and move by Xcel are drawing accolades all over the state.

“This is a pioneering decision by the PUC,” said John Nielsen, the energy program director at Western Resource Advocates. “It clears the way for Xcel to put into action what is arguably the most innovative utility resource plan anywhere in the country, and it will only strengthen Colorado’s status as a clean energy leader.”

Last week’s move by the PUC marks the first time ever that a regulatory agency in the United States has approved a utility resource plan to retire old and inefficient coal-fired power plants and replace them with cleaner, more modern operations. Along with the power plant closings, Xcel’s plans to add at least 1,000 megawatts of new wind and solar power to its portfolio and dramatically increase its investments in energy efficiency.

“The nation is looking for leadership on energy and climate issues, and we now have it with this landmark shift to clean energy,” said Dan Grossman, Rocky Mountain regional director of the Environmental Defense Fund.


Needle drop expected in region

The needles of many area pines, spruce and fir will be turning yellow and dying in coming weeks. But there’s no need for alarm. The local office of the Colorado State Forest Service notes that the die-off is almost always a seasonal change and not the effect of a pine beetle.

The increased presence of mountain pine beetle has heightened state residents’ awareness of the trees around them. It also has increased the number of calls the Colorado State Forest Service receives from concerned citizens about their trees.

“Many people are somewhat in disbelief when I tell them that the yellow, dying needles are a function of the normal needle drop that happens every fall,” says Lindsay Gartner, forester for the Durango District of the State Forest Service. “But people tend to notice more variations in the appearance of their trees when they are concerned about a particular insect or disease.”

In autumn, many types of evergreen trees shed their interior needles, which are the needles closest to the trunk. If a tree is stressed due to drought or other root damage, it may shed more needles than usual. When a tree is infested with mountain pine beetle, the entire tree may turn an off-shade of green, or it may start to turn brown at the bottom and proceed up the tree. In addition to the changing needle color, bark beetle-infested trees also will show additional signs of attack such as fine cinnamon-colored sawdust at the base of the tree.


Desert Rock art show draws to close

An unusual form of Desert Rock protest ends this week. “Connections: Earth + Art = A Tribute Art Show in Resistance to Desert Rock” comes off the walls of the Center of Southwest Studies with a closing reception this Thursday.

The show’s guest curator, Venaya Yazzie, put the show together in order to create dialogue about the Desert Rock Power Plant. The massive power plant is proposed for a site on the Navajo Nation just southwest of Farmington, N.M.

“As an artist I feel as though it is my responsibility to use my art as a means of reminding humankind that the earth is precious and that it is a vital part of our existence; without it we could not survive,” Yazzie stated. “This art show is the result of acknowledging this idea, really it lies in the unconscious, it’s the wisdom taught to us, to me, by our ancestors. Our actions today, including the need to overuse and destroy the land, will wholly affect our future.”

The closing reception runs from 5-6:30 p.m. on Sept. 25.

– Will Sands




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