Gary Hubbell: The Redneck Tree-hugger |

Gary Hubbell: The Redneck Tree-hugger

Gary Hubbell
Aspen Times Weekly

Have any of you driven through Rangely lately? Baggs, Wyoming? Rulison? Rio Blanco? Those of us who grew up in western Colorado, loving the smell of sagebrush and juniper, walking the deserts looking for arrowheads, riding the ridges gathering cattle in the fall, hunting blue grouse in the aspen groves ” it’s sickening what has happened to the remote parts of our state.

The oil and gas industry has run amok in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico, drilling thousands of wells, laying one pipeline on top of four or five others, cutting a labyrinth of poorly planned roads, spreading weeds, disturbing grouse leks and elk calving grounds, and screwing up the landscape for perpetuity. It’s a disaster, and the scars will remain for thousands of years.

Finally we have a legislature with the political will to start clamping down on this extractive free-for-all. Governor Bill Ritter signed into law a new set of drilling regulations, and the oil and gas industry ” having enjoyed a heyday for the past eight years ” is whining like a bunch of punks caught vandalizing the school.

Fundamentally, I don’t have a problem with the extractive industries. I burn petroleum products in my vehicles, I use plastic bottles, I let the forced-air heat kick in when the woodstove tapers off in the early morning. I’m also going to put a big solar electric panel on my next house, and I’m researching whether I should install a small windmill where I live now.

In the meanwhile, however, we need oil, natural gas, and coal, and we need to dig and drill into the earth to find it. Well and good. It’s HOW it’s done that matters. If we decide to lease our public lands for gas drilling, then we need rules in place so it doesn’t occur during elk calving season or grouse mating season, so contaminants don’t end up in the creeks where the cutthroat trout are spawning. And here’s a novel concept ” once you’re done drilling, you remove all traces that you were ever there. Of course, reclamation never really removes all traces, but hey, it’s a worthy goal, isn’t it?

Caterpillar, a giant of American industry, makes all kinds of big earthmoving machines so that you can remove drilling pads and roads, and think of all the jobs you could create re-vegetating the disturbed habitat. Then we could go back to a sustainable use of the land, such as the hunting and fishing industry, which contributes more than $1.5 billion a year to Colorado’s economy.

Instead, we have, up to now, thrown a long-term hunting and recreation industry permanently under the bus in favor of a bunch of carpetbagger drillers, leaving behind a whore’s handbag of drilling debris, spider-webbed roads, ugly metal structures, erosion, noxious emissions and a depressing, trashed-out landscape.

Much noise has been made from the drilling industry, complaining that drilling activity is down already as companies anticipate the impact of new regulations, and layoffs are surely ahead in a down economy. State Republican legislators are acting like Rumpelstiltskin, getting so mad about losing the fight that they’re about to turn into a puddle of butter.

“Oil and gas is a second-class citizen in this building, in this administration,” whined Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry.

No, Josh, let me explain it to you. The Bush/Cheney drilling cabal let extractive business run rampant on our public lands, trashing our wide-open spaces and our national heritage. The Colorado Oil and Gas Commission was stacked with a bunch of industry insiders. They allowed drilling in a haphazard fashion with poor planning and organization. Drillers were required to post a laughable bond to reclaim a site; given the fact that revegetation would cost far more than forfeiting the bond, why do it? All in all, they made a big, fat mess out of things. Knowing they had an 8-year window to punch as many holes as possible, that’s just what the gas industry did, even in the face of rapidly declining gas prices.

“But we’ll lose jobs with these new regulations!” goes the next verse in the chorus of whining. I have an interesting take on that assertion. I recently spoke to a college coach who recruits athletes from western Colorado high schools to compete at a varsity college level. “It’s hard to get these guys to come to college when they can make good money in the gas fields right out of high school,” he said. We all know that energy production goes in boom-and-bust cycles, and instead of producing new generations of engineers, teachers, doctors, MBAs, and IT specialists, we’re producing a generation of roughnecks who will have a bunch of old snowmobiles and mortgages when the boom is over. A great many of the gas field workers come from Oklahoma, Texas, and other drill-rig states, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but for Penry to act like they’re his long-time constituents is disingenuous. They’ll pull up stakes and head to the next job once this one is over, and we’ll be left with the mess.

Penry, who is using this issue as a springboard to campaign for governor, is stirring up the hornet’s nest of gas-industry employees, many of whom are likely not registered to vote in Colorado and won’t be here in a couple of years anyway. In the short term, however, they make plenty of noise. Just so we’re clear, I’m not a fan of Governor Bill Ritter, who, as Denver’s district attorney, allowed illegal aliens to plea-bargain felonies so they wouldn’t be deported. I can’t imagine being in a political party led by the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. But Penry’s shrill, petty complaints highlight the seamy side of the Republican party, the platform of which always seems to contain a plank that says “throw the environment under the bus in favor of short-term gains for our business buddies, and we’ll saddle the public with the cost of cleaning it up later ” if ever.”

If regulations mean “putting it back like you found it,” then jobs will be created in environmental compliance ” spraying weeds, revegetating road cuts, berming drilling rigs to keep noxious emissions contained. I don’t know about Josh Penry, but I’m here for the long haul. The cost of drilling must include the cost of reclamation. Period. If it’s not cost-effective to reclaim the landscape, then it isn’t worth drilling in the first place.

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