Sustainable energy development key to healthy Western economy
By Bob Meulengracht and John Smeltzer
The chorus has started again on how making it easier and quicker to approve energy development will spur the Western economy. Tapping the West’s vast mineral resources would generate many jobs and much prosperity, if only government got rid of costly, burdensome regulations — or so the song goes.
It’s an old, familiar tune that falls flat.
A few years ago, wildlife conservation organizations, led by the Colorado Wildlife Federation, helped write new lyrics. They joined with community groups and landowners in developing and promoting thoughtful oil and gas guidelines to safeguard the state’s world-class big game herds, fishing areas, water and scenic vistas that are a multibillion-dollar, sustainable part of the economy.
The Colorado Legislature unanimously passed House Bill 1298 in 2007, requiring that impacts on wildlife, public health and the environment be considered when approving oil and gas drilling.
The concerns that propelled leasing and drilling reforms in Colorado and nationwide remain, despite the troubled economy. Western sportsmen and other outdoor recreationists recognize and support the need for fuel and the jobs and revenue it creates for the region. Reasonable regulations on the oil and gas industry are not impeding any of that.
One example is the Bureau of Land Management’s recent announcement that protests of leases on public lands have dropped dramatically as federal officials address issues before a lease is issued. The result is fewer obstacles and less time and uncertainty for the industry.
Another example is that production has increased. The U.S. Interior Department reports that total natural gas production rose 5 percent from 2008 to 2010 and onshore oil production on public lands increased 5 percent from 2009 to 2010.
The BLM processed more than 5,000 drilling permit applications on federal and tribal lands last year, according to the Interior Department, and has processed about 4,100 so far this year, despite the lingering economic slump and low natural gas prices.
Roughly 41 million acres of public land are under oil and gas leases. Only 12 million acres are producing, according to federal figures.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission reported that Colorado led its neighbors, including Wyoming, in new well starts in the first quarter this year. Colorado had 543 starts, compared with 274 in Wyoming and 204 in Utah, according to the latest available figures.
Colorado approved 2,757 oil and gas drilling permits through Aug. 8, despite continued low natural gas prices and a slumping economy.
The recession has bolstered calls for scrutinizing the cost of regulating business.
By way of example, an industry refrain is that limiting the use of categorical exclusions — streamlined environmental reviews — is simply regulatory red tape that delays development and costs jobs.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office, however, found that BLM’s extensive use of categorical exclusions from 2006 through 2008 to approve almost 6,900 oil and gas activities often did not comply with either the law or BLM’s guidance.
Wildlife conservation groups urge careful consideration of the flip side of the cost-benefit equation. What will the Rocky Mountains lose by not protecting watersheds, gold-medal fishing streams, greater sage grouse habitat, the air quality of national parks and wilderness areas and our drinking water?
Let’s look at what it costs government, communities and private landowners — taxpayers — when a minority of oil and gas companies abandons wells or pollutes streams and the bonds they post don’t begin to cover the expense.
A state study has found that hunting, angling and wildlife-related recreation produce about $2.5 billion for Colorado’s economy each year, building on a heritage that Westerners value and is the envy of the world.
State and federal leasing and drilling reforms were a balanced response aimed in part at protecting those values.
So, rather than simply mouthing the old singsong that pits the economy against the environment, let’s demand some harmony — and responsible energy development that avoids and minimizes negative impacts while safeguarding our wildlife, our streams and other natural resources.
John Smeltzer of Fort Collins is the board chairman of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, Colorado’s oldest wildlife conservation organization made up of hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers. Email him at coloradowildlife.org.