John Colson: Trumping the BLM for Colorado oil and gas
December 12, 2017
As you may know, the ongoing travesty known as President Donald Trump's administration has been working diligently to dismantle as much of our national government as it can, starting with undermining a variety of federal agencies and their work.
I'd like to take a look at one of those agencies, the Bureau of Land Management, which is in charge of huge swaths of public land surrounding the Roaring Fork Valley.
Just last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill called the "SECURE American Energy Act," an overhaul of the agency's energy policy, to put more focus on production of oil and gas resources than has been the case, a change that will directly affect Garfield County and its roughly 10,000 natural gas wells currently in production.
A recent examination by the High Country News, an environmentally oriented publication out of Paonia, reported that there are leaks and spills of oil and gas, in various sizes and volumes, almost daily from pipelines, compressor stations and other facilities across the country. The study found that some 3.6 million gallons of crude oil have been spilled nationwide in the past two and a half years.
In Colorado's gas patch, according to news reports and data from the state, we had some 615 spills reported in 2015, and more than 500 spills in 2016, which translates to more than one a day. And since this information comes from the industry-friendly Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is required only to report spills and leaks of a certain size, it is likely that a number of spills and leaks (and the volumes released) are being heavily under-reported or not reported at all. And concerning those that are reported, often the information given to the public is spotty, at best.
For instance, there are still unanswered questions regarding a 2013 natural gas leak in Parachute Creek, about 40 miles west of Glenwood Springs, that reportedly dumped some 50,000 gallons into the ground near the creek.
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A telling fact about the BLM, which oversees hundreds of millions of acres of public lands, is that right now it does not even have a permanent director. Instead, it has an acting director, a man named Michael Nedd, who takes his marching orders from Trump henchman Ryan Zinke, secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI), who oversees the BLM and has made clear his plans to cripple it.
Zinke, at the behest of Trump and the ideologues who fuel his anti-government ire, has been quietly gutting the DOI, with plans to get rid of 4,000 employees as quickly as he can, many of them senior agency employees whose collective store of knowledge is key to running such a complex and huge bureaucracy.
Zinke also has taken aim directly at the BLM, with plans to cut more than 1,000 from its employee rolls by the end of 2017 — this, for an agency that already was critically understaffed after years of Republican hostility and budget cutting by Congress.
The Colorado office of the BLM is run by state director Ruth Welch, who reportedly started her career at the Office of Surface Mining in 1989, before switching to the BLM in 1993. She was sworn in as the BLM director in June, where she administers the state's 8.3 million acres of public lands (as well as more than 27 million acres of mineral resources).
Although agency officials have been quoted in reports since last spring as fearing wholesale layoffs by the Trump administration (the BLM in Colorado employs about 1,000 people directly), I could find no more recent reports on whether those fears have been borne out.
But at the very least, it is certain that Welch and her staff can expect that under Trump, they will not have either the resources or the support to do much other than manage the extraction of oil, gas, timber and other valuable reserves buried under or growing out of the fertile soil of the Colorado Rockies.
Just this past week, the BLM announced it would be eliminating an Obama-era rule aimed at reducing methane leakage from pipelines and other facilities. The rule was an effort to both cut back on air pollution from those facilities and keep more gas in the pipelines and thereby boost the industry's efficiency.
Efficiency, however, is not what the industry values, especially not through government oversight.
No, what the industry values is a free hand to plunder our national, natural resources as fast as they can.
Oil and gas, in particular, put the sparkle in the industrialists' eyes, and the industry continues to pile up leases on public lands like confetti at a New York City parade, even though oil remains at all-time-low prices and natural gas reserves are so bloated that the industry is scrambling to sell it all to overseas buyers.
What's that? What about all that hot air about making the U.S. "energy independent" as a justification for looting the public lands of their mineral wealth?
Well, since we are currently importing lower volumes of gas and oil than we have in the past half-century or so, one might say that goal has been achieved. One might even argue that perhaps we should leave the rest of the petroleum in the ground and focus on environmental preservation of our treasured public lands.
But that's not what the industry wants.
The industry wants to keep piling up the profits, and the only way to do that right now is by selling our gas and oil to foreign customers, regardless of the cost to our national forests and wildlife, our clean air and water.
And one way to ensure that this can all take place as quietly and secretly as possible is by drastically cutting back on the numbers of federal employees who might otherwise take umbrage at the idea of giving away our natural heritage in order to line the pockets of corporations, many of which are multinationals that neither have loyalty to this country nor pay their fair share of taxes to keep the U.S. government running.
By slashing away at government payrolls, Trump and company obviously diminish the ability of government agencies to do their jobs, which means less conscientious oversight over the government giveaways.
In addition, though, they make it less likely that disgruntled employees might turn into whistle-blowers, letting the rest of us see through the fog of deceit to more clearly assess the degradation of our national treasures in time to do something about it.
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