The West: Drilling opposition shifts focus to potential impacts on the climate |

The West: Drilling opposition shifts focus to potential impacts on the climate

Susan Montoya Bryan
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. ” Conservationists are shifting the debate over oil and gas development across the West from the preservation of a single species here or there to the potential impacts that development could have on entire landscapes due to climate change.

At the center of the debate are oil and gas lease sales held each quarter by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The agency offered about 100 parcels covering some 112,000 acres in New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma two weeks ago and has more than 175,000 acres up for lease in Colorado next week.

“The Rocky Mountain region is experiencing an unprecedented oil and gas boom right now so it’s crucial that we get ahead of the curve here and not let this get away from us before it’s too late to do anything,” Jeremy Nichols, director of Denver-based Rocky Mountain Clean Air Action, said Thursday.

Nichols’ group is just one of several organizations that have protested recent oil and gas lease sales across the region due to climate change concerns ” rather than the usual arguments of how oil and gas might affect a particular endangered species or a pristine plot of land.

“We’re really trying to change the nature of this debate and get the BLM to start looking at the bigger picture here,” Nichols said. “Even though these are individual state lease sales, regionally it adds up.”

The climate change argument has spread from Montana and the Dakotas down to Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, and BLM officials acknowledged Thursday it’s likely here to stay.

“I think it is going to be discussed more and more,” said Tony Herrell, BLM’s deputy director for minerals in New Mexico. “… It’s an issue that society is just becoming more aware of now.”

Herrell’s office is responsible for oil and gas development in New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, one of the largest oil and gas programs in the BLM. The four-state area has over 45 million acres of mineral estate, including two of the largest natural gas reserves in the world.

The region sold every one of the parcels it offered during the April lease sale, but Herrell said the leases haven’t been signed since the agency is still reviewing a protest filed by conservation group WildEarth Guardians.

The group targeted all of the parcels, saying they should not have been offered since the agency’s management plans don’t address climate change as a potential result of greenhouse gas emissions from more oil and gas development.

The protest also claims the agency skirted federal environmental laws by not considering new information about climate change from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the New Mexico Climate Change Advisory Group or other federal scientists.

“It’s just difficult to find words strong enough to express the irresponsibility that they’re proceeding with in just lease after lease after lease and not addressing this problem,” said WildEarth Guardians staff attorney Robert Ukeiley.

Herrell argued that the BLM has been working with the oil and gas industry for the past decade to get a handle on greenhouse gas emissions that result from flaring and venting on the oilfield. That work, he said, has paid off with more than a 50 percent reduction in emissions.

He also said the agency is always looking for better ways of doing things to ensure that oil and gas development has minimal impacts on public lands ” and ultimately climate change.

“We will be a part of the discussion, a part of the dialogue,” he said. “But you have to remember our activities are only one small part of the global equation with greenhouse gases and that makes it difficult because, almost by default, if you want to address greenhouse gases you’ve got to expand and address everything else, the whole energy policy.”

That’s what conservationists and sportsmen’s groups are hoping to do with their flurry of protests. They say their goal is to get federal policy makers to rethink America’s energy portfolio to ease the impact on public lands.

But to do that, Herrell said, both sides of the energy equation ” supply and demand ” must be considered. “There is no one silver bullet answer to this and it’s going to take time,” he said.

Austin Williams, Rocky Mountain energy coordinator for Trout Unlimited, has organized a symposium this month in Wyoming to bring together hunters, anglers, researchers and planners to talk about how to balance conservation and energy development in the region.

“Our view right now is that to a certain degree we can have responsible oil and gas development and still have these wonderful natural resources,” he said. “We just need to be cautious with how we move forward and make sure that we’re making informed decisions and recognizing the importance of our fish, wildlife and water resources to our Western way of life.”

Steven Williams, a hunter and angler who serves as president of the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute, said he could think of several people who have a lifelong dream of heading West to fish for trout, hunt elk or just soak up the vast expanses.

But for the non-sportsmen, Williams fears it’s a “not-in-my-backyard sort of thing.”

“Most people don’t worry a whole lot about it,” he said. “But there’s certainly a lot at stake, certainly a heck of a lot at stake.”

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