The Price Is Wrong

If you thought the drilling frenzy out west was temporary, think again. But there's a right way to do it, and it's up to the next president to lead the charge.

    Photo: Illustration by Oksana Badrak

Politics and Drilling in the U.S

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THERE'S A MODERN-DAY fairy tale that goes like this: Once upon a time, in a land rich with forests and rivers and beasts of the wild, an evil ogre came to power. This ogre had a co-ruler, a smarter, cagier troll bewitched by the oil industry, and together they sent great wheezing machines to poke holes all over the kingdom, leaving the beasts to founder and the children to cough in the polluted air. But that's OK, the people said. The ogre can rule for only eight years, and then a handsome green prince will come along and save us.

Not so fast, Snow White. The scary part of this story is all too true, but the happy ending will take a lot more than a magic wand.

During its tenure, the Bush administration has opened unprecedented amounts of public land to oil and gas drilling, especially in the West, where the natural-gas frenzy is starting to make the old silver boom look quaint. To be fair, Bill Clinton leased his share of public lands too. But new well starts on federal lands have climbed 125 percent under Bush, according to the industry-tracking company IHS—from an average of 1,532 a year to 3,455. As of last September, 44 million acres of federal land were under lease—the equivalent of 20 Yellowstones. And a lot more is in the pipeline.

But there isn't a prince in sight—not Obama and not McCain—who can make it all better overnight. Bush II has found a way to effectively void Clinton's executive order protecting up to 58.5 million acres of roadless areas, but mineral rights don't work that way: Once leases are auctioned off, they're in private hands, and they can be renewed, traded, or sold. Plus, with some polls claiming that more than half of Americans want more offshore drilling, holding off new proposals has gotten a lot harder. With people hit by the one-two punch of summer gas prices and winter heating bills, you could probably sell a plan to drill under the panda exhibit at the National Zoo.

Anybody still enjoying this bedtime story?I didn't think so. But the new decider in chief can and should make sure that drilling is managed properly, because there's a wrong way and a right way to do it. The wrong way is the fire-sale approach being pushed by industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute, which has been trotting out ads claiming that our untapped domestic resources can run 60 million cars and heat 160 million homes for 60 years. Newt Gingrich, who just last year was arguing for an end to fossil-fuel addiction in his book A Contract with the Earth, is now circulating a Web petition called "Drill Here. Drill Now. Pay Less" that says we've got three Saudi Arabias' worth of oil sitting under the Rockies, just waiting to be slurped.

Are they right? Not when it comes to oil. America is home to only about 2 percent of the world's petroleum reserves, so opening up more leases really is like digging to China with a spoon. That ocean of oil out west? It's locked up in tight geological formations of oil shale. Extracting it through the supposedly low-impact processes touted by Gingrich and others is literally a scorched-earth proposition, one that requires scraping off 100 percent of the topsoil and heating the shale to 650 degrees for three years. Even Shell says it won't know if the technology is commercially viable until sometime in the next decade.

Natural gas is another story. Americans use 22 trillion cubic feet of the clean-burning fuel a year—a dumpster's worth per person per day—and we get about 80 percent of it right here at home. When Gingrich asks what people are supposed to do while we wait for renewable alternatives to both oil and gas, he's got a point. "Are we to say," he wrote me in an e-mail, " 'Sorry, just deal with it for ten years while we hope that these other transportation fuels become affordable and catch up with your life and the lives of your loved ones'?"

It does get difficult to whine about sage-grouse habitat when you put it like that. And serious environmentalists know we can't just frown and hope the big, bad drillers go away.

"People don't understand the energy basis of our civilization," says Carbondale, Colorado–based energy analyst Randy Udall. Ten years ago, he explains, we needed 10,000 wells to supply our natural-gas needs. "Now it takes about 30,000 simply to keep production flat. If you stop drilling for 12 months, you'd have to turn a bunch of stuff off—big stuff like New York or Illinois."

Even so, Udall thinks the drill-it-now mentality is misguided. By leasing western lands all at once, he argues, we're burning the house down to stay warm for a night. If we auctioned off those leases at market rates over decades, we'd buy ourselves much more prosperity. And with the West as rich as it is in solar, wind, and geothermal potential, dialing back on leasing while we push hard on renewables makes better economic sense.

All of this doesn't mean the new president won't have options. He will, and by using them aggressively, he can make a huge difference. Opposition to drilling has been growing in surprising quarters—from local governments to traditionally conservative groups like ranchers and hunters. That broad-based resistance can provide political leeway. Just as Bush issued an executive order in 2001 telling federal land managers to expedite applications for "energy-related projects," the new prez can tell the Bureau of Land Management to stop issuing new drilling permits until we get a handle on what's been leased so far. He can direct land managers to enforce regulations often waived under Bush and Cheney—like man­datory directional drilling, which uses far fewer wells, and drilling bans in wildlife breeding grounds and winter ranges. And he can work to pass a carbon cap, making carbon-heavy resources like oil shale compete on a level field with renewables like wind.

Meanwhile, he can attack from the demand side. "The case that we need more and more natural gas is based on our supply-side mentality," says Ned Farquhar, an energy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "If we did efficiency halfway intelligently, we could eliminate 20 to 30 percent of our demand for natural gas in the next 15 years." As slackened demand lowers gas prices, he argues, it can also make Rocky Mountain drilling, which can be expensive and infrastructure-heavy, a much less attractive proposition financially.

That efficiency push includes enlisting regular citizens as well, says Gloria Flora, the former U.S. Forest Service supervisor who famously halted new drilling in 356,000 acres of Montana's Rocky Mountain Front and who now directs the public-lands nonprofit Sustainable Obtainable Solutions. "People get it. They want to do something, and they don't know what to do. Imagine if we had an administration that could actively engage the population and say, 'Look, this is what we're going to do.' Instead of saying after 9/11, 'Go shopping,' what if, after the 2008 energy spike, they said, 'Let's go conserving'?"

But we'll also have to swallow hard and compromise. Even as it works on a "western energy greenprint" to phase out fossil fuels by 2050, for example, the NRDC is supporting a natural-gas pipeline from Alaska, where more gas than the U.S.'s proven reserves of 211 trillion cubic feet may lie underneath lands that have already been drilled for oil.

"You have to pair the big no with the big yes," says Udall. "To get 20 percent of our electricity from wind would be a wonderful thing, but you'll have to build 19,000 miles of transmission lines. To get a bunch of electricity from the sun, you've got to cover thousands of square miles of desert with solar panels. We're gonna lose some desert tortoise, and we're gonna piss some people off building those transmission lines."

As for the West, it had better hold on tight. Places like the tiny windswept crossroads of Pinedale, Wyoming, have been experiencing ozone-alert days, thanks in part to the diesel compressors from 700 gas wells in the area—and in June, the BLM announced plans for 3,700 more. This would mean a well every 2.5 acres in some places. And keep in mind that a well pad—the bulldozed patch that the drill rig sits on—can cover an acre or more.

"We've got to restore some balance so it's not just 'Katie, bar the door,' "says Wilderness Society senior policy adviser Dave Albers­werth. "I went out there and it's like a scene from There Will Be Blood, only without the flaming gusher." Expect that scene to replay all over the West: According to a Wilderness Society count of BLM permits under review, we could see 126,381 new oil and gas wells over the next 15 to 20 years—in the Rocky Mountain states alone.

"The danger for the Rockies is that we become sort of roadkill in a Mad Max movie," says Udall. "Put it this way: In a ham-and-egg breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. Well, the Rockies are the pig."

I got a hint of this in July, when I flew over Colorado's Roan Plateau—73,600 acres of elk habitat, 3,000 feet above the natural-gas boomtown of Rifle—with EcoFlight founder Bruce Gordon, who's spent 9,500 hours flying politicians and reporters over western lands. When the BLM announced plans to put 55,000 acres here up for commercial leasing this summer, it mowed over 75,000 public comments (98 percent in support of greater protection for the Roan), a lawsuit from ten conservation and hunting groups, and more moderate plans from Colorado senator Ken Salazar and governor Bill Ritter.

We took off from Aspen, taxiing our way past dozens of private jets. West of Rifle, we banked north. To our right lay the undeveloped public lands of the Roan, unexpectedly lush, a green ocean rolling with aspens and conifers. To our left was private land: rigs, pumps, trailers, and barracks, with gas flares torching beside magenta evaporation ponds.

"None of this was here six years ago," Gordon hollered over the headset. "Now you fly in here at night and it's lit up like a coliseum. And you should expect this to triple." In my head I tripled the hives I saw below me; the scale made me dizzy—subdivision after subdivision of industrial cul-de-sacs that, without some swift action and smart national thinking, could have no end in sight.

"We have no conception, no word, no image, for what's coming," Udall had told me. "Neither McCain nor Obama have come to grips with the scale of what we face. Nor has the environmental community. Everybody's living in a fairy tale."

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