White House Puts the West on Fast Track for Oil, Gas Drilling

excerpted from the 25 August 2004 | Los Angeles Times

by Alan C. Miller, Tom Hamburger and Julie Cart, Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Placing a heavy emphasis on energy production in the American West, the Bush administration has moved aggressively to open up broad areas of largely unspoiled federal land to oil and gas exploration.

The administration has pressed for approval of new drilling permits across the Rocky Mountains and lifted protections on hundreds of thousands of acres with gas and oil reserves in Utah and Colorado. In the process, it has targeted a number of places prized for their scenery, abundant wildlife and clean water, natural assets increasingly valuable to the region’s changing economy.

Soon after taking office in 2001, the Bush White House set up a little-known task force that acts as a complaint desk for industry, passing energy company concerns directly to federal land management employees in the field. Although the creation of White House task forces is commonplace, experts on the executive branch say it is unusual to have one primarily serving the interests of a single industry.

In addition, the Bureau of Land Management has been pushed to issue drilling permits at a record pace for three of the last four years, an increase of 70% since the Clinton administration…. The evolving policy is being carried out by senior officials at the Department of Interior, a number of whom have past ties to the energy industry….

Yet environmentalists and some current and former BLM officials contend that the administration is sacrificing some of the most spectacular natural spaces in the West for a short-term bump in supplies. Despite all the drilling, they say, foreign imports of oil and gas have not declined. They also say Bush’s and Cheney’s failure to emphasize energy conservation and alternative sources is leading to irreversible damage to federal lands, water, air and wildlife.

“Deer, elk, sage grouse, all the charismatic mega-fauna we have tried to protect, are no longer considered to be part of the natural heritage; they’re considered impediments to oil and gas development,” said Dennis J. Willis, an outdoor recreation planner for the BLM in Utah and a 28-year agency veteran, who made it clear he was speaking for himself and not the bureau. “It’s like saying the Vatican and the Colosseum are impediments to urban renewal in Rome.” …

The rush to drill is just one of the shifting priorities under the Bush administration that critics say departs from a 40-year tradition of federal land stewardship….

Critics attribute the administration’s energy policies in the West to its long-held ties with the energy industry….

With two energy veterans topping the ticket [Bush and Cheney], the oil and gas industry gives more than 80% of its campaign contributions to Republican candidates, up from 63% in 1994….

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