Manifest Destiny

Under pressure to boost domestic energy production, federal land managers are reshaping the West in profound ways.

Wyoming's western Carbon County in the south central part of the state isn't what comes to mind when you think of the Rocky Mountain West. Driving along Interstate 80 west of Rawlins, the Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks in the northwestern corner of the state seem to exist in another world. Best known for the fortresslike Frontier Prison, where you can see a pair of shoes made from the hide of notorious outlaw "Big Nose" George Parrott (Butch Cassidy's colleague was lynched and skinned nearby in 1881), Rawlins is on the eastern edge of the Great Divide Basin, a kind of high-desert no-man's land. It's flat, brown and dull.

But that's not how Dwayne Meadows, an avid hunter born and raised in Wyoming, views it: "I'm going to see things you wouldn't even know are here just driving along-like jack rabbits and badgers and lizards. To stalk a pronghorn that can see you for 35 miles is very difficult. You put yourself in a position to understand the ecosystem a lot better." Meadows is a field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a Washington-based consortium of hunting and fishing organizations working to keep public lands open and well stocked for hunters and anglers.

The partnership and an environmental group, the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Laramie, Wyo., separately filed lawsuits against the Bureau of Land Management last year when the agency approved the drilling of about 2,000 gas wells in the Atlantic Rim region just south of Rawlins. The natural gas field covers more than 270,000 acres on the eastern edge of the Continental Divide, which separates the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds in North America. As uninspiring as the area might appear to an East Coast visitor whose notion of the Western landscape is more dramatic, it provides critical winter range for the mule deer, elk and pronghorn that migrate here every fall from the snowbound mountains to the north and east. The groups behind the lawsuit contend that drilling to the extent approved by BLM will destroy crucial habitat and disrupt migratory patterns with potentially disastrous consequences.

While the courts consider the cases (in December 2007, a federal judge denied a request for an injunction against the project), energy companies aren't wasting any time. Anadarko Petroleum Corp., the major lease holder on the project, along with Double Eagle Petroleum Co. of Casper, Wyo., a smaller stakeholder, have begun drilling, laying pipelines and electric transmission lines, and building miles of new roads through the desert. Pipe yards and man camps-temporary housing areas for workers-have sprung up seemingly overnight to support the construction. "There's a lot going on here that a lot of people don't understand," Meadows says.

That's probably an understatement. Western states, especially Wyoming, face unprecedented development by energy companies. Fueled by the 2005 Energy Policy Act and Bush administration policies aimed at boosting domestic energy production, BLM has sold thousands of new leases to coal, oil and gas producers and likely will issue thousands more this year. Last year, the bureau processed about 8,000 applications for drilling permits from energy companies. More than half of them were in Wyoming.

The full impact-on the environment, local communities, the economy and even on U.S. energy supplies-won't be known for years, but will be felt for decades to come. To Meadows and others, that's the central issue: "We're not saying, 'Don't drill,' we're saying, 'There's a better way.' " The pace of development is as much a problem as the development itself, he says, because by the time problems emerge-destroyed habitat, contaminated groundwater, wildlife losses-the damage could be irreversible.

The Checkerboard

To many environmentalists, it's easy to cast this as a story about complacent federal bureaucrats, an oilmen's administration and a willing Congress in the pockets of greedy energy companies. But the main problem with that narrative is that it fails to acknowledge the economic value such development has for states, the steps agencies and industry are taking to mitigate the inevitable damage, the enormous pressure consumers are placing on energy suppliers, and the convoluted land ownership laws that govern much of the mineral development in the West. Eager to settle the West and expand American influence, Congress in 1862 passed the first of several railroad land grants aimed at building the transcontinental railroad. To encourage development, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads initially were offered right-of-way for the track plus 10 square miles of land for every mile of track-five miles on each side.

To retain control of the development, however, the federal government parceled out the land in one-square-mile increments, alternating ownership between the railroad companies and the government every other mile. The government also retained subsurface mineral rights. In theory, the railroads would sell the land to offset construction costs, but it didn't work. Private investors didn't want to buy the land, especially not during the Civil War and before the railroad was actually built. Much of the land was considered worthless; most of it ran through hostile Indian territory.

To sweeten the pot and aid railroad financing, Congress amended the land grant law several times, eventually adding the subsurface mineral rights to the land given to the railroads and expanding the grant to 10 miles on each side of the track. The effect was to create what appears as a vast checkerboard on U.S. Geological Survey maps-ownership alternates between the federal government and private or commercial landowners every other mile. Over time the railroads sold off some of the land to which they owned mineral rights. In 2000, Houston-based Anadarko bought the Union Pacific Resources Group, a spinoff oil and gas exploration and production company of railroad giant Union Pacific, whose line runs through southern Wyoming.

Further complicating the land ownership issue, Congress passed the Stock Raising Homestead Act in 1916, again to help settle the West. The law privatized for grazing more than 70 million acres of public land otherwise believed to be worthless. But the law gave ranchers only surface rights to the land. The government still retains subsurface mineral rights, which are administered by BLM and remain subject to the 1872 Mining Law, which governs hard rock mining. Over the years, some of these vast ranches have been sold to private developers, broken down into smaller parcels and eventually sold to oblivious homeowners who discover their limited ownership rights only after a mining prospector or BLM comes calling.

"That leads to all kinds of challenges," says Bob Bennett, the bureau's state director who oversees agency operations in Wyoming. In that state alone, the bureau controls the subsurface mineral rights for more than 40 million acres, including land managed by the Forest Service. Management in the checkerboard, which includes much of the Atlantic Rim project, is especially difficult. "Our challenge here is how do you manage when every other section is in somebody else's hands," he says.

Because private landowners who own the subsurface rights to their land can pretty much do what they want within existing laws, the government essentially is compelled to sell oil and gas leases when the land adjacent is being developed-otherwise they risk losing both the resources and the royalties they might generate. Royalties from resources extracted from federal land are generally split between the state where they are generated and the U.S. Treasury.

The 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act directed BLM to develop long-term resource management plans to guide decision-making. The plans take years to work out and are essentially prescriptions for opening or closing land to grazing or mineral development and establishing the environmental safeguards in the event of development. By law, the agency must maintain habitat for threatened or endangered species. The potential inclusion of the greater sage grouse on the endangered species list is causing tremendous concern among energy companies and state and federal officials worried it would limit gas production, resulting in significant revenue losses for the state and federal treasuries as well as the producers.

When an energy company or any other user petitions BLM to lease the land for development, the bureau will entertain the proposal as long as it complies with the resource management plan. BLM then develops an environmental impact statement, which is released to the public for comment before the agency makes any final decision on leasing.

"The real issue we have is recognizing the national demand for public resources and trying to balance that with local interests and concerns," Bennett says. In terms of energy, Wyoming contains some of the largest fossil fuel deposits in the country. According to the Energy Information Administration, the state has more than a dozen of the nation's largest oil and gas fields, making it the No. 1 onshore producer. Wyoming also produces 40 percent of all coal mined in the United States, generating 20 percent of the nation's electricity consumption from all sources. And with a state population of only 500,000, it doesn't consume a lot of energy itself, making it a major exporter to other states.

All this production, much of it taking place on federal land, generates huge revenues for the state. Last year, royalties paid to the state based on energy produced on federal lands topped $925 million, according to the Minerals Management Service, the agency responsible for collecting, auditing and disbursing revenues associated with mineral leases on federal and tribal lands. Steve Furtney, energy policy adviser to Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, says the revenue has been critical, but the unprecedented scale of development threatens to damage the state's second-highest revenue stream, which comes from tourists and recreational sportsmen, many of whom are hunters and anglers.

One of those hunters is Bennett, who had just returned from an elk hunting trip in the Sierra Madres, southeast of the Atlantic Rim project when he met with Government Executive at the BLM office in Cheyenne. "We know that you can't develop oil and gas at a specific point and not impact the wildlife at that point," he said. "But if overall, the area around that is healthy and the animals have a place to go, and you can maintain the numbers, that's what we're looking to do."

The bureau, along with a number of other state and federal agencies, established the Wyoming Landscape Conservation Initiative two years ago to mitigate damages and offset the consequences of development in one area by enhancing habitat in another. In 2007, Interior funded the initiative at $400,000; this year BLM is seeking $4 million for the program. The initiative involves livestock operators and energy companies as well as state and federal agriculture, fish and game agencies. It operates under the understanding that everyone benefits if crucial wildlife habitat is improved.

"We're like everybody else in the American public when you ask them if they want energy or a clean environment: Hell yes. We want both," Bennett says. "We're hopefully not having to make a choice, but I won't kid you. When we allow development for oil and gas, there are impacts."

Butch Cassidy Slept Here

Charley Dein believes Americans can have it both ways-energy and a clean environment. The Denver-based production engineering manager for Anadarko's Rockies coal bed methane operations recently toured the Atlantic Rim project area with Clare Miller, a senior manager in BLM's Rawlins field office, to discuss the company's operations there. At one point, the tour was diverted because Anadarko operators had temporarily closed a road-a nearby colony of prairie dogs was mating. The company is under orders to protect the prairie dogs as well as some local raptors that regard the prairie dogs as a perfectly good meal. It's an irony not lost on Dein, but if he resents the added expense for the company, he doesn't let on.

Coal bed methane production is a growing business for Anadarko, in part because the technology for producing it has improved. Pilot tests in the Atlantic Rim indicate the field will produce

1.35 trillion cubic feet of natural gas over the next 50 years. That's enough to heat more than 19 million homes for an entire year. Once wells are drilled and initial road and pipeline construction are over, however, the company expects to have a small footprint, Dein says. Power lines and pipelines will be buried and many of the wells will be monitored remotely, greatly reducing traffic through the field. In addition, BLM has prescribed paint colors the company is to use on pumps and water tanks and other equipment to better blend in with the exposed landscape, as well as native grasses that should be planted in disturbed areas.

"The idea is that when we're done, you'll never know we were even here," Dein says. That's what Miller wants to hear. He and Dein discuss the best options for reclamation, which is difficult to do in this region, seven years into a drought.

Coal bed methane is so named because it is trapped with water in coal seams near the Earth's surface. To release the gas, producers fracture the seam to pump water out, forcing the gas (and the water) to the surface. The water byproduct often is suitable for consumption by livestock, Miller says, but is generally not suitable for humans because of the salts and other minerals it contains. Therefore, BLM is requiring Anadarko to treat the water and re-inject it into underground aquifers so it will not enter the watershed and affect the ecosystem.

Throughout Carbon County, some landowners have noticed an increase in methane bubbling to the surface in what locals call "mud pots" and many are wondering whether gas drilling is the cause. Miller and Dein both say they doubt it, but Miller doesn't dismiss the relationship. "We're trying to understand exactly what's going on," he says. "We have evidence that there's always been some amount of gas bubbling to the surface in places in the area. We're not saying it isn't increasing," but some geologists see the dropping water table caused by drought as a more likely culprit.

Meadows, the conservation partnership's field representative, is skeptical. The consequences of coal bed methane production on such a scale in this type of environment are unknown, he contends. To him, the mud pots are just one more indicator that energy production is moving too fast in the West. "We can't offset our reliance on foreign oil by messing up the last wild lands we have left," Meadows says. He laments the fact that preservation of the Atlantic Rim hasn't generated more public attention. At a lunch stop in Baggs on the Colorado border, where signs beckon tourists to visit the site of one of Butch Cassidy's exploits, he says: "With the romanticism of the environmental world, you can't sell the Atlantic Rim like you can sell [other places], where you've got big waterfalls and grizzly bears and majestic mountains. This is high desert here and it's crucial for a lot of species. Unless you put yourself here and study it you won't understand it. Do I think the guys at the BLM field office know it? Yeah, I do. I think every single one of them knows it."

As Bennett observed earlier, "I had an old mentor who told me once that the Bureau of Land Management is never going to be known for the quality of the decisions it makes, but primarily for the quality of its compromises." ž

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
X CLOSE Don't show again

Like us on Facebook