Energetically Defending Our Public Lands

(By Buck Parker) In the recent State of the Union address, President Bush praised the House of Representatives on its previous efforts to pass the Energy Policy Act...

In the recent State of the Union address, President Bush praised the House of Representatives on its previous efforts to pass the Energy Policy Act and urged the Senate to pass a revived version of the bill that will soon be brought to the floor of the House for a vote.

To call the Energy Bill a lightning rod is both a cliché and an understatement. Proponents of the bill promise increased domestic energy production with minimal damage to the country's environment and pay lip service to the possibilities for energy conservation. Realists point out the obvious pitfalls of this have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too scheme, which attempts to drill and mine away the country's energy woes by opening up more and more fragile public lands in the West and Alaska to oil and gas production--all for very little actual return.

The Energy Bill has been widely criticized for subsidizing the fossil fuel and nuclear industries--oil and gas was slated to receive $7.4 billion in tax payer money, while coal and nuclear were promised $2.2 billion and $1 billion respectively--and doing little to promote energy conservation or the development of renewable energy sources. However, no aspect of the administration's plan has generated more controversy than the provision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. In 2003, thanks to the conservation community's commitment to protecting the Refuge, the provision to allow drilling was kept out of the final energy bill. In the end, the pork-laden energy bill was blocked in the Senate over fiscal concerns and opposition to a provision that could let polluters off the hook for contaminating ground water with MTBE (Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether) and other fuel additives.

Only two months into the Bush administration's second term it is clear that the energy industry is still looking for payback on its many years of investment in the GOP. Not surprisingly, the Executive Branch is trying to deliver. Samuel Bodman, the newly confirmed Energy Secretary, billed himself to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee as an "energetic advocate" for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and pledged to facilitate the construction of a natural gas pipeline to tap the reserves of Alaska's North Slope. Over in the House, Chairman Richard Pombo's (R-CA) environmentally hostile House Resources Committee has redoubled its own efforts to open the pristine wilderness of the Arctic Refuge and surrounding areas to oil production. Increasingly, Chairman Pombo is resorting to fear tactics and has repeatedly hyped drilling in the Arctic as critical to America's economy, national security, and "way of life."

In the face of this wrong-headed policy, Earthjustice's commitment to protecting the Arctic from oil development is unwavering. Our Policy and Legislation staff, working in conjunction with our allies in the conservation community, is lobbying Congress on behalf of the grizzly and polar bears, caribou, wolves, bowhead whales, and the millions of sea and shorebirds that make their home in this wonderful wilderness. Additionally, Earthjustice attorneys in Alaska are challenging the Department of the Interior's 2004 decision to open 8.8 million acres of the Western Arctic to drilling without evaluating the impacts of exploration on the sensitive wildlife, key habitats, and wilderness values of this region. With the Bush administration's recent efforts to open the entire Teshekpuk Lake area, one of the most ecologically vibrant and complex wetland ecosystems in the Western Arctic, to oil and gas drilling, this work is all the more critical.

And this problem isn't confined only to Alaska--the Bush administration has certainly not spared the Lower 48 from its efforts to increase domestic energy production. In the Rocky Mountain states of Montana, Wyoming, and Utah, conservationists and ranchers are joining forces to fight the looming threat of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) supported coalbed methane development. Further south in New Mexico--despite the united opposition of ranchers, Governor Bill Richardson, and conservationists--the BLM is allowing 141 exploratory wells to be drilled in the desert grasslands of the Otero Mesa in the hopes of developing natural gas reserves.

Although it has consistently caved-in to the oil and gas industry's destructive interests in New Mexico, the BLM claims to understand the value of conserving the last remaining wildlands of the Chihuahuan desert grassland, trying desperately to understate the impact of development. The current plan--if allowed to proceed--permits "only" 1,589 acres of new well pads, roads, and pipelines to be scattered across the landscape. While developing one and a half thousand acres may seem minimal--"less than one-tenth of one percent of the total surface area," if you believe the BLM's press release--the real impact of the development on desert species such as the pronghorn antelope and the endangered Aplomado falcon is not measured so easily. Nor will it ever be possible to reclaim or reconstruct 1,589 acres of unfragmented desert as wilderness.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, Chairman Pombo's committee has taken to employing the "less than one-tenth of one percent" red herring in the debate surrounding the Arctic Refuge. While the number of acres slated to be covered by concrete and oil wells my be small when compared to the total acreage of the Refuge, the impact will not be isolated to a 2000 acre corner of the Coastal Plain. One only needs to look to Prudhoe Bay--the massive oil field to the west of the Refuge--to see that the actual impact of development can be enormous. While the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay directly affect 22,000 acres of tundra and wetlands, taken cumulatively, the roads, drilling platforms, airports, and noise of the expansive operation impact wildlife across thousands of square miles.

Clearly, opening more of the Arctic and Rocky Mountains to oil and gas development will not achieve the administration's goal of American energy independence, but it will permanently scar some of the nation's wildest and fragile public lands.

Vawter "Buck" Parker joined Earthjustice (then the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund) as an attorney in 1980 and became the Executive Director in 1998. www.earthjustice.org

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