As Congress draws closer to passing budget legislation that includes a provision for opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, other, less publicized federal lands are being drilled for gas and oil at an unprecedented rate. The Washington Post reported late this week that parts of the Rocky Mountain West are now so exposed to industry exploitation that the number of drilling permits issued by the Bureau of Land Management has outpaced the amount of equipment and manpower available to take advantage of them.
That contradicts longstanding claims by the energy industry that restrictive federal regulations have prevented them from getting at America's abundant natural gas deposits. Last year, Big Energy's best friend in Washington, Vice President Dick Cheney decried the fact that "large parts of the Rocky Mountain West are off limits." The BLM proceeded to issue an unprecedented number of drilling permits last year, which continues apace, in spite of energy companies' inability to keep up.
"When you have a huge portfolio of unused leases, why does the Bush administration continue to issue more, especially in environmentally fragile areas?" asked Dave Alberswerth, an analyst for the Wilderness Society.
Environmentalists are upset about the oil and gas industry's steady encroachment on public lands; cattle ranchers have also been complaining. On Earth Day last week, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced that his state would file a lawsuit to prevent the BLM from drilling in Otero Mesa, a federal grassland that ranchers count on for cattle grazing and hunting. Concerns about drilling there include the contamination of groundwater. New Mexico's attorney general, Patricia Madrid sounded the battle cry against Washington: "I have a message for the federal government: Not on our watch. We will fight the federal government's plan."