Now that the administration has lost the fight over new drilling in Alaska, the oilmen are hungering for Rocky Mountain wells.

By Joshua Micah Marshall
Published April 19, 2002 10:19PM (EDT)

With oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge blocked by Thursday's 54-46 Senate vote, the Bush administration is on the prowl for other sources of fossil-fuel riches. According to Thursday's Washington Post, the administration is loosening various impediments to drilling for oil and natural gas in stretches of land in the Rocky Mountains, from Wyoming to New Mexico.

Administration oilmen apparently think they may find fresh reserves of crude under those hills, but others wonder if they are going to uncork a gusher of self-parody instead. Come visit the new Yellowstone National Wells! Or maybe the new Enron Field, now relocated to the Canyonlands!

All kidding aside, the prime targets for new drilling and exploration projects are located in areas of land and national forests that you may not have heard of. One is Montana's Rocky Mountain Front, located mostly in the Lewis and Clark National Forest. Others are in Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. In 1997 the then-supervisor of the Lewis and Clark, Gloria Flora, put 356,000 acres of undeveloped land in that forest off-limits to drilling for 10 to 15 years. Recent remarks by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman (whose agency administers the land), however, have thrown that ban into doubt.

So how big an impact would drilling have on the Rocky Mountain Front?

"It would be pretty dramatic," says Flora. "You only need to look north over the border to Canada to see the kind of ecological devastation this kind of drilling does." Flora says drilling for natural gas in such undeveloped regions -- as has been done in Canada -- requires building a large industrial plant to separate sulfur from the natural gas. And the sulfur that's produced causes widespread environmental damage. "Are we going to develop every piece of land possible?" asks Flora. "You just don't see another landscape like this."

Diemer True has a slightly different take on the issue. He's the chairman of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, who's heading up the pro-drilling team. True says new drilling is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the war on terrorism. And in any case, he insists, the Bush administration is just following the law.

The Clinton administration "became obstructionist and used any and every excuse to delay and even block" drilling projects, True told Salon on Thursday. He calls Flora an example of the bad old Clinton days in which one local "bureaucrat" could "arbitrarily" take hundreds of thousands of acres out of contention for drilling. The Bush administration is just going back to the "multiple-use concept in which you have hunting, fishing, hiking, grazing, oil and gas drilling, and mining" all together. "It's been a fundamental concept in the West for decades," he says.

Whoever wins that argument, with ANWR off the table, Congress looks set to take a closer look at the administration's efforts to loosen restrictions on Rocky Mountain drilling. Though Congress has little power to stop the new drilling, Democrats will certainly try to put another blemish on Bush's environmental record, most likely through hearings in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

"Congress needs to take a thoughtful look at what's happening -- or what the administration is trying to make happen -- on our public lands," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., told Salon on Thursday. "What troubles me at first glance is that this administration's first instinct is always to drill more, whether in the Arctic Refuge I had to fight for more than a year to leave protected, or on our public lands."

Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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Environment George W. Bush John F. Kerry