‘Energy price blame game’ gets under way | AspenTimes.com

‘Energy price blame game’ gets under way

Environmentalists expect congressional leaders to try to take advantage of motorists’ anger over high gas prices to renew a battle to open more public lands to drilling in Colorado and throughout the West.With gas topping $2 per gallon at the pump – and prices running significantly higher in Aspen – Congress will try to tap public opinion to earn support for more lenient regulations on oil and gas exploration and production, said Jim Waltman, director of refuges and wildlife programs at The Wilderness Society. Republican leaders want to use the high prices to their political advantage, he claimed.”Their goal is to shift the blame to the other party and the environmental regulations they’re associated with,” Waltman said. He predicted the public won’t buy the “energy price blame game.”The U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote next week on a broad energy bill that has passed in that chamber once but failed in the U.S. Senate. A separate but related bill proposes opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling – a contentious issue that has garnered national scrutiny in the past.The Wilderness Society went on the offensive against the bills Thursday by contending that there isn’t enough oil and natural gas in the western United States and Alaska to “dent” global production and influence prices.Pete Morton, a resource economist with The Wilderness Society in Denver, claimed the oil and gas industry doesn’t face a shortage of land it can tap into. There are 42 million acres of public lands under lease nationally, but only 11 million acres or 26 percent are producing, Morton said, citing Wilderness Society studies of public documents.In the West, 32 percent of leased parcels of public land are producing. In Colorado, oil and gas companies hold leases on 4.4 million acres but are producing on only 1.3 million acres or 30 percent, he said.The lack of drilling rigs and shortage of materials has been a bigger impediment to drilling than lack of available land, according to Morton.He said it doesn’t make sense that the federal government would consider leasing public land in pristine areas that might be eligible for wilderness protections when so much land that’s already leased is untapped.The debate over gas and oil exploration spilled into Pitkin County in May. The Bureau of Land Management held a quarterly auction that included the lease of 1,560 acres in Pitkin County for potential natural-gas development. The two parcels were southwest of Carbondale in the Thompson Creek Roadless Area, a vast stretch of national forest that doesn’t have any special protections.The Wilderness Society protested the leasing of those lands and 30 other parcels in Colorado on the grounds that the BLM didn’t adequately review the lands for eligibility for wilderness protection. The BLM countered that all lands offered for lease were deemed appropriate for oil and gas development in earlier land management plans. Nevertheless, the agency is reviewing the protests. No deadline has been announced for a decision by the agency on the leases.The Wilderness Society and numerous other conservation agencies will urge their members and mount public awareness campaigns over the next week designed to urge people to lobby their representatives in Congress to defeat the energy bill.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com– see Drilling on page A7– continued from page A1

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