GREAT FALLS, MONT. — American oil companies are probing deeper than ever into the earth's crust, pioneering sophisticated methods of extraction that allow them to reach natural fuels previously off limits to a drill bit.
But despite all their technological progress, there remains an obstacle harder than the most troublesome bedrock: A belief among many citizens that harvesting oil and natural gas from sensitive areas will somehow harm the environment.
Last month, oil and gas producers were stunned when the United States Forest Service announced that, in order to protect pristine wilderness, it was banning oil and gas exploration on a large portion of Montana's Rocky Mountain front.
That ban, together with a federally imposed moratorium on drilling in the nearby Badger-Two Medicine area - considered sacred to some native American tribes, has touched off a national debate. Again, the classic argument is heating up: Should the US create jobs and stave off America's dependence on imported oil or should it protect the country's last wild areas from industrial intrusion?
Almost a decade later, the specter of the Exxon Valdez, and the damage it did to Prince William Sound still looms large, haunting the energy industry.
Gloria Flora, supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, which stretches across the front of Montana's Rocky Mountains, justified her decision to impose a drilling ban on what she calls "overwhelming public sentiment."
Of the 1,500 letters her office received during the past two years of investigation - including comments from 49 of the 50 states, 80 percent expressed strong opposition to leasing forest lands known for grizzly bears and solitude to energy developers.
The way Washington thinks
As a result of this shift in public opinion, many members of Congress, who have been supporters of resource development, are now being forced to change their tack. Indeed, opinion polls rate environmental protection very high on many constituents' personal agenda.
"It is a political dilemma for many of them," says Joseph Lastelik of the American Petroleum Institute. "They are supportive of industry, but they don't want to be tarred as one of the Sierra Club's 'Dirty Dozen' and have people believe they are anti-environment."
Compared with the early 1980s when the Reagan administration flung open the doors of public lands to more intensive oil and gas leasing, the '90s have seen much more cautious development.
At the end of this summer there were 1,012 active domestic drilling rigs - ahead of the 778 in operation all of last year but far below the 1981 peak of 4,530 producing wells.
And oil and gas companies are finding that they have fewer and fewer places where they are allowed to drill. Geologists say as many as 10 billion barrels of oil may lie beneath the Continental Shelf along the coast of California, another 3 billion barrels in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida, and large deposits of natural gas also may exist off the North Carolina coast and the Florida panhandle.
But concerns over potential impacts on the marine environment have persuaded a wary Congress to ban development in those areas. The gesture has prompted companies to focus more on deeper waters in the central and western Gulf and inland areas like Alaska and the Rocky Mountain front.
This narrowing of options has led to a growing number of protracted skirmishes in the West.
In addition to the fight for drilling rights on Montana's front range, energy companies have been trying for years to sink exploratory wells in Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest. But the grand prize in the North American energy sweepstakes is Alaska's venerable Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which sprawls across a Maine-size quilt of tundra.
The last frontier
As in Wyoming, the industry is encountering stiff resistance from environmentalists who worry that development could ruin the untrammeled peace of the area. Developers say that the process of harvesting as much as 9 billion barrels of oil need not be destructive.
"Our view has been and continues to be that we do our work in a very environmentally sound way," says Lastelik. "We do not pollute the air, bother the streams or any of the animals."
Such arguments have added poignancy in Utah, where Conoco recently received approval from the Bureau of Land Management to drill a single exploratory oil well in the newly created Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. While environmentalists are concerned about the impact drilling might have, BLM officials note that President Clinton, in creating the monument last year, said the government would honor existing leases, and that applies only to the single well. The odds, it says, are that it will come up dry.
Meanwhile, Ms. Flora stands by her decision on the Lewis and Clark Forest not so much as the loss of opportunity but a deferment of options to the future when technological advances make energy development more compatible with wildlands in increasingly short supply.