Drilling in Rockies sharpens split over wilderness vs. oil

An energy task force, led by Cheney, will recommend areas in the West to open up to oil and gas exploration.

The proposal to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge looms, for many Americans, as an abstract environmental controversy set in a faraway place few will ever see.

But now, as the Bush administration prepares to move forward with plans to develop untapped oil and natural-gas reserves in the northern Rockies, the fight is moving more into the nation's backyard.

"The closest most of us will ever come to the Arctic refuge is through pictures," says Gloria Flora, former supervisor of Montana's Lewis and Clark National Forest. "With the Rocky Mountain front, millions have personally stood in front of it and experienced the sense of awe."

Within the coming weeks, Vice President Dick Cheney, who is spearheading a special national energy task force, will recommend areas in the West to be targeted for oil and gas development, including some corners of the Rockies that have been set off limits.

One of the most contentious areas on his list could be the foothills of Montana's Rockies, sprawling southeastward from Glacier National Park. The administration may also push to open portions of the Bridger-Teton National Forest near Jackson Hole and the Jack Morrow Hills in the starkly beautiful Red Desert - both located in Mr. Cheney's home state of Wyoming.

While nothing definite has been released, "there are plans to significantly ramp up exploration and production in the West," says Dan Kunsman, a spokesman for US Sen. Craig Thomas (R.) of Wyoming, who is working with Cheney.

The eastern flanks of the Rockies straddle "the Overthrust Belt," a subterranean geologic feature that extends into Canada and contains rich reservoirs of oil, gas, and coal.

The National Petroleum Council estimates that 137 trillion cubic feet of natural gas alone - enough to power the US for at least half a decade - remains undeveloped in the Western interior. Much of those reserves have been identified, but engineers believe undiscovered pools could still exist.

The Bush administration has said it wants to reduce the nation's dependence on imported oil and stave off future energy crises like the one in California. And pressure to explore in the Rockies has increased as opposition in Congress builds to drilling in the Arctic.

Ms. Flora, though, warns that "if the Bush administration decides to drill here, it's going to face a very strong public backlash." If anyone has an informed view of what is at stake for places like the Badger-Two Medicine roadless area and Black Leaf Canyon in Montana, it is Ms. Flora.

Three years ago, while she was a senior US Forest Service manager, she made the decision to impose a moratorium on gas drilling along the Rocky Mountain front.

She reached her conclusion after touring a full-field gas site in the Canadian province of Alberta. "I was deeply concerned, because the impacts covered an area much greater than the physical footprint of development," she says. Flora acknowledges that industry today can lessen the impact, but "it still isn't something I would want to see along the front."

Her decision to impose the drilling moratorium was controversial at the time, lauded by environmentalists while the oil and gas industry tried unsuccessfully to have it overturned. Now, the industry has a more sympathetic listener in Cheney.

Some have questioned how objective Cheney can be in deciding where to drill and where not to drill, given his recent job as an oil-industry executive and the fact that companies pushing for greater access to public lands contributed financially to putting Bush in the White House.

Those backing the drilling, though, brush aside such concerns. Oil-industry officials say that today's technology allows them to be less intrusive, using methods not yet available when drilling began in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and in southern Canada decades ago. They say they can get in and out in few decades and restore the landscape to its original condition.

Conservationists, however, argue that the impacts will be long lasting. Among other concerns, they point to access roads that fragment habitat and lead to more grizzly-bear deaths through poaching.

In Jackson Hole, Wyo., a community whose pristine landscape draws tourists, the possibility of revoking a drilling ban on part of the Bridger-Teton National Forest is a contentious topic.

"[These 370,000 acres] sit between the Teton, Gros Ventre and Bridger wilderness areas, [and] if you carve them up with roads and wells there will be ripple effects," says Pam Lichtman with the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. Ironically, when Cheney served in the US House of Representatives two decades ago, he supported creation of those wilderness areas.

Wyoming hopes to reinvigorate its economy with a boom in oil and gas production like the one which left it awash in budget surpluses in the 1960s and '70s.

"In some corners of Wyoming this effort coming down from the administration is being seen as an opportunity to revive the economy," says Mr. Kunsman. "But at the same time the West has changed and one of the new pillars is tourism. The senator has always believed you can have both."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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