‘Wild lands’ bullet dodged, oil still spills in Wyoming

The Obama administration’s announcement this week to dump the so-called “wild lands policy” was not unexpected. The policy was already dead in April when the GOP successfully barred the Interior department from spending money to implement the program.

“I am pleased the Administration appears to finally understand that bypassing Congress and ignoring input from local officials is the wrong way to go,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) said in a prepared statement.

Some critics say the GOP bypassed the executive branch, preventing federal land management professionals from doing their jobs by defunding the program. Which is more politically motivated; Congress or the Interior department?

The answer to that question depends on whether your party holds sway in the White House or in Congress.

This week’s action is essentially a continuation of decades of indecision about which federal lands might deserve special protections to maintain wilderness characteristics. In the 1980s, the Bureau of Land Management inventoried just 571,401 acres in Wyoming as “wilderness study” areas. (A citizens’ inventory puts the figure at 1.3 million acres.)

The BLM sent its nationwide wilderness study area inventories to Congress in 1991, and Congress has failed to act on it since. Sens. Barrasso and Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming) have talked about dumping the entire inventory.

Conservationists argue that, aside from national monuments, national parks and Class 1 areas, nothing strictly prohibits development anywhere in Wyoming. Even in and around wilderness study areas. Coal-bed methane gas development adjacent to the wilderness study area in Fortification Creek, for example, is imminent.

There’s a slew of special designations that environmental groups attempt to attach to lands: “rare,” “uncommon,” “wild,” “scenic,” “research natural areas” just to name a few. Still, Wyoming has successfully boosted mineral production figures across the board (Wyoming even stemmed its decades long oil decline in 2005).

“It’s all theoretical now,” said Liz Howell, executive director of the Wyoming Wilderness Association. “We’re open for business, and they (the energy industry) want to consider every acre of BLM land for development.”

Fortification Creek elk

Of course, intrinsic to the access debate is how much red-tape companies have to cut through, and how much money they have to spend, in order develop lands that are technically open. But forgive critics who doubt whether the minerals industry can tread lightly on sensitive ground. The Superfund program wasn’t created out of bureaucratic boredom.

Partisan battles aside, what really matters in the public lands debate is whether we have reasonable access to develop Wyoming’s energy resources in an environmentally responsible manner, and whether our special landscapes actually receive special consideration to preserve their wild qualities.

Regarding access to minerals, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead announced on Tuesday the state had recorded its second-largest mineral valuation ever in 2010 at $15.5 billion — a huge number generated by both production volume and commodity price. The taxable value of oil production ticked up 34 percent from 2009 to 2010, natural gas was up 30 percent and coal was up 6 percent. The taxable valuation of uranium produced in Wyoming was up 44 percent.

That’s hardly evidence that federal lands have been locked up.

The value of oil and natural gas produced from 2003 to 2008 in five Rocky Mountain states — Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico — was more than $300 billion, according to Headwaters Economics’ report, “Fossil Fuel Extraction and Western Economies.” Last week, Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission supervisor Tom Doll told WyoFile that drilling activity in Wyoming this summer will largely depend on “rig availability.”

Is Wyoming developing these minerals in an environmentally responsible manner? Wyoming politicians used to talk tough about insisting on developing minerals the Wyoming way, but have recently shifted to a softer will mitigate impacts to an acceptable level.

The first tweet I read on my iPhone this morning was an advisory warning the young and elderly to avoid strenuous outdoor activities throughout the entire Powder River Basin, due to high winds blowing dust (a problem exacerbated by large open-pit coal mining). Wyoming’s oil and gas industry, by a long shot, was responsible for the highest volume of spills in the United States, according to a CBS News investigation — 10.3 million gallons in 2010 compared to a distant second Texas at 4.5 million gallons.

Is it petty to list the poor safety records of refineries in Newcastle, Cheyenne and Sinclair, or the ongoing ozone pollution problem in Pinedale, or the declining mule deer herd near Pinedale, or the oil spill into Emigrant Creek south of Rawlins and the oil sheens this spring in the North Platte River near the old Amoco refinery site? I don’t think so.

While the bulk of Wyoming’s energy worksites operate without incident — and many even earn honors for superior safety and reclamation work — the state’s environmental track record of late is inadequate. So forgive those rural landowners and sparsely populated communities like Pavillion, Newcastle and Pinedale if they don’t seem entirely grateful for dodging the “wild lands policy” bullet. Some folks in Wyoming feel like they’ve already been hit by a train.

— Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at (307) 577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

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Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Older folks don’t want to change. As a lifelong Wyoming resident I’ve seen the oil companies tell their employees how to vote. After WWII the country moved from a national ethos rising from fairness and local community strength to the “lotto” mentality . . . leaving a community ethic replaced with the “big bucks” ethic . . . the value of a an American no longer was determined by character and selfless deeds but simply on how much money one has. As a result small town community businesses have been replaced by chain stores. The business profits made by local businesses no longer stayed in the community as they did in the past. Instead local monies flow out to nourish international corporations.
    Those corporations need more . . . always need more and Wyoming has natural resources . . . two kinds . . . those that nourish the soul and open a path to creative independent thinking and those that can be raped to produce a temporary monitary gain for the internationals who now own our small communities.
    It started with the small family farmer being run out of business by rising real estate values that forced him to sell to real estate developers. And it set the game for Wyoming. All that’s going on now is only a difference in scale.