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I've asked it before: What are we doing to ourselves? Vance looks past his spread to the forested hillside, he frowns. The San Juan National Forest is considering a proposal to drill seventy-nine gas wells and build thirty-six miles of road in the currently roadless area that borders Vance's farm on three sides... To collect gas, companies will pump out the water and allow the gas to escape. Yet drilling for gas near the edge of the formation can be risky-in some cases when gas companies drill close to the surface, methane escapes through natural cracks and comes to the surface in the midst of people's fields or domestic water wells instead of escaping into the well bore as intended.... Even the U.S. Forest Service's own environmental impact statement states that the drilling may affect Vance's home, "exposing residents to safety risks."

How can they do this?

Toxic Legacy

By Rebecca Clarren
Forest Magazine, Winter 2006

Vance's situation isn't rare. The oil and gas industry has huge political clout: in the past three election cycles, gas companies made nearly $75.5 million in campaign contributions. Approximately fifty of the Bush campaign's premier fundraisers are energy executives and nearly 60 percent of the top contributors hold leases on western public lands, according to a
2004 report by the Environmental Working Group. All this money appears to be having an impact.


This political climate, coupled with record high gas prices, Hurricane
Katrina and the war in Iraq, means that it is now economically feasible to extract oil and gas from areas never before considered, regardless of roadless status or impacts to wildlife, water or those who live rurally, like Vance.

As you know, I have my own opinion as to why this public lands rush is only partially related to energy issues.

Since Bush took office, the Bureau of Land Management, the agency responsible for administering oil and gas leases on federal lands, has issued drilling permits at a rate 70 percent higher than before. On Forest
Service lands, the number of wells has doubled in the past five years, with the vast majority of new wells located in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New
Mexico. While Forest Service officials have no accurate data for the number of wells, they have leased 4.5 million acres of land to gas companies. In the face of this buildup, a broad spectrum of local governments, state wildlife agencies, outfitters, ranchers and farmers are fighting to preserve the land. Whether their voices will be loud enough to make a difference remains to be seen.


"It's an industrial zone," says Jim O'Donnell, a former oil and gas employee who now coordinates the Coalition for the Valle Vidal, a nonprofit group in northern New Mexico that is fighting oil and gas development on the Carson. "You definitely don't want to recreate in these areas. I've been to places I used to go to as a kid and you just don't want to be there anymore. There are power lines, gas pipes and pipelines everywhere. You've carved up the landscape into 5,000 tiny little pieces that nobody can survive on."


Additionally, the effect of such industrial development on human health remains largely unknown due to a lack of research. Even so, doctors and citizen activists worry that there is cause for concern. The flaring of natural gas produced from gas wells may release chemicals such as benzene, a known carcinogen; hydrogen sulfide and mercury, both neurotoxins; and toluene, which the United States Department of Health and Human Services warns may affect the central nervous system, resulting in headaches, drowsiness, memory loss and nausea. These hydrocarbons don't just seep into the air; they can leak from pipelines or wells into soils and underground aquifers.

"Anybody with any common sense could see this is a very serious problem.
These constant low-dose exposures could lead to cancers, but the long-term delayed effects will be very hard to link to industry later," says Theo
Colburn, coauthor of Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival-A Scientific Detective Story, which looks at the harmful effects of synthetic chemicals. "Already there has been a flutter of people complaining about their health," she continues. "It's just insidious."


Aside from diminished laws to protect the public, the increase in new wells means that agency staffers have little time to monitor for potential problems. Throughout the region, BLM field offices, also responsible for
Forest Service lands, met their annual environmental inspection goals only about half of the time during the past six years, according to a June 2005
Government Accountability Office report. One office in Buffalo, Wyoming-the field office with the highest drilling permit workload-achieved a mere 27 percent of its environmental inspection goal in fiscal year 2004.


O'Donnell, the former oil company employee from New Mexico, isn't so sure.

"I've seen that all these companies can have so many regulations, but when they get out in the field, they have a complete disregard for the rules.
They have no regard for the landscape."

Indeed, I've discussed some of the landscape impacts of this kind of development before.

Sloan Shoemaker, director of Wilderness Workshop, an Aspen, Colorado-based
nonprofit, looks down from a Cessna onto the White River National Forest
about fourteen miles from where Sandoval saw the pipeline leak. Under the
Clinton administration the land, which is home to the largest contiguous
aspen forest in the country, was designated as roadless. Today, a freshly
dug road and well pad cut a scar into a blanket of green trees.

"Goddamn it," whispers Shoemaker. His organization had appealed the lease on the grounds that a 1993 environmental impact statement excluded any surface
occupancy on all roadless areas. Yet this lease was from 1987 and was up for grabs. That shouldn't matter, he says.

This is a long, thorough and excellent article. Combined with a complimentary article in the latest issue of High Country News you non-westerners can get a taste of what we are facing out here and my fellow Westerners can get educated as to the fight we are facing.

"There are a few places that are too wild and too precious to be developed. They're a remnant of our national heritage," says Shoemaker, leaning out the
plane window as he looks toward the red rock mesas and thin streams that weave through the landscape like silver snakes.

"We're talking about the waning days of the fossil fuel industry and this is just the last gasp until we make the transition to renewable energy. We shouldn't ruin the last best places in the process."

We shouldn't ruin the last best places - nor should we endanger the health of the American people.

Originally posted to environmentalist on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 07:06 AM PST.

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