WASHINGTON — Placing a heavy emphasis on energy production in the American West, the Bush administration has moved aggressively to open up broad areas of largely unspoiled federal land to oil and gas exploration.
The administration has pressed for approval of new drilling permits across the Rocky Mountains and lifted protections on hundreds of thousands of acres with gas and oil reserves in Utah and Colorado. In the process, it has targeted a number of places prized for their scenery, abundant wildlife and clean water, natural assets increasingly valuable to the region's changing economy.
Soon after taking office in 2001, the Bush White House set up a little-known task force that acts as a complaint desk for industry, passing energy company concerns directly to federal land management employees in the field. Although the creation of White House task forces is commonplace, experts on the executive branch say it is unusual to have one primarily serving the interests of a single industry.
In addition, the Bureau of Land Management has been pushed to issue drilling permits at a record pace for three of the last four years, an increase of 70% since the Clinton administration.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 26, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
A graphic in Wednesday's Section A regarding wilderness lands set aside by presidential administrations was visually misleading. Although the acreage figures were correct, the dimensions of the boxes representing those figures were not in the proper proportion. Here is a corrected version:
*--* Years President Acreage '63-'69 Johnson 9,932,471 '69-'74 Nixon 1,274,569 '74-'77 Ford 3,470,407 '77-'81 Carter 66,256,220 (Includes Alaska) '81-'89 Reagan 10,622,143 '89-'93 Bush 3,937,695 '93-'01 Clinton 9,455,470 '01-now Bush 529,604
Los Angeles Times
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 26, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Energy policies -- An article in Wednesday's Section A about the Bush administration's energy policies in the western United States incorrectly stated in early editions that wildlife-related activities in Wyoming accounted for more income than any other source. Those activities generate more income than any other source except oil and gas.
Internal memos and interviews show senior administration officials have directed federal employees to be responsive to industry, commended offices that approved large numbers of drilling permits and chastised those that were slow.
The effort is so intense in the oil- and gas-rich Rockies that some Bureau of Land Management employees there have taken to calling the region "the OPEC states."
The administration says increased drilling is necessary to satisfy America's growing demand for power and to reduce reliance on foreign energy sources. Interior officials say they are proceeding with respect for the land and with input from communities that must cope with the effects of new production.
The acceleration of energy development, however, could transform some of the region's most treasured landscapes, places that call to mind the works of such painters as Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt, who immortalized the Rocky Mountain region in the late 19th century.
At stake are areas such as New Mexico's Otero Mesa, a lonely stretch of low, knobby mountains incised with Native American petroglyphs that rise out of one of the nation's last Chihuahuan Desert grasslands. And there is Wyoming's Jack Morrow Hills with its towering, multi-hued buttes, undulating sand dunes and herds of rare desert elk, mule deer and pronghorn antelope. It is also the terminus of the longest wildlife migration route in the continental United States.
The push for oil and gas, which could lead to more than 1,000 wells in the Jack Morrow Hills area, would open the way for networks of roads, pipelines, well heads, generators and waste ponds.
It can take many years for environmental damage to appear. Wild herds don't disappear overnight. Officials of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department warned in a draft report last month that the proliferation of natural gas wells could have a negative effect on deer, elk and pronghorn antelope. The report went on to say that the protective measures by the BLM in Wyoming had been "inconsistently applied" and "frequently modified or waived."
Chris Sullivan, whose family has a ranch near an expanding natural gas field south of Pinedale, Wyo., said he used to see 700 or more antelope on his property during hunting season. "Last fall, I don't think we had 100," Sullivan said. "This summer we've had a handful."
Outlined during the 2000 campaign, the administration's course was set the following year with a national energy plan developed by a Cabinet-level group headed by Vice President Dick Cheney. Citing executive privilege, the vice president has kept confidential the records of people who met with the group.
The evolving policy is being carried out by senior officials at the Department of Interior, a number of whom have past ties to the energy industry.
Drilling applications are skyrocketing, driven by record-high energy prices and new technology that allows the industry to exploit previously inaccessible supplies.
In a recent interview, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said the administration had streamlined some energy production processes, including speeding up oil and gas permits to ease a backlog.
"We have a larger and larger percentage of resources found on federal lands because we have tapped out the reserves now on privately owned lands," Norton said. Nevertheless, "we're really talking about very small areas in comparison to the vast areas of land that we manage."
But she said the BLM had not promoted energy production at the expense of recreation, conservation and wildlife protection.
Kathleen Clarke, director of the BLM, agreed.