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Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

An anti-Bush backlash is growing among ranchers, hunters and property owners over natural gas drilling, which wreaks havoc on the environment.
 
 
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Linn Blancett pulls his pickup truck to a stop and lets out a weary sigh. "You see that area there," he says, pointing to a patch of land that borders a well pad pumping out gas, the surface once covered with grass now bare. "That's supposed to be reseeded."

We are in the northwest corner of New Mexico, a few miles from the Colorado border, in the heart of the San Juan Basin, a bowl-shaped, 7,500-square-mile expanse that sits atop one of the largest natural-gas reserves in the country. Linn Blancett and his wife, Tweeti, have been running cattle here for much of their lives. Their ranch stretches across 32,000 acres of mostly federal land, hilly, high-desert terrain where the Blancetts first settled as homesteaders six generations ago, back in the 1870s.

On this morning, though, several hours into our trek across the range, we've yet to spot any cattle. What we have seen plenty of are roads, pipelines and drilling rigs. Such oil and gas activity generates millions of dollars in profits for companies like Burlington and British Petroleum – and may be reshaping the politics of the Rocky Mountain West in ways that will reverberate in the presidential election this fall.

At the heart of the controversy lies a drilling method known as coal-bed methane extraction, a technique pioneered in the late 1980s that enables companies to suck natural gas out of the coal seams that lie buried beneath the San Juan Basin and other formations. Beginning under the Clinton administration, the federal government pushed to expand production of this comparatively clean-burning fossil fuel, although Clinton also protected millions of acres of public land from drilling. The Bush administration, by contrast, has called for removing all "restrictions and impediments" on domestic development, code language for opening dozens of pristine natural habitats to unfettered leasing.

It's a policy that has pleased industry but antagonized a growing chorus of ranchers, hunters and property owners, people who tend to be politically conservative yet find themselves making alliances with strange bedfellows – Native American groups, environmental organizations – in a common effort to protect their livelihoods and land. Natural gas may be relatively clean to burn, these critics note, but getting it out of the ground wreaks havoc on the environment in other ways.

For one thing, accessing the gas trapped in coal seams requires companies to pump millions of gallons of water out of the ground, depleting aquifers and bringing to the surface huge amounts of sodium-laden waste water that can destroy vegetation. Drilling on the scale now taking place in the West, moreover, can cause erosion and surface disturbances that will permanently scar the landscape of one of the nation's most spectacular regions and poses a long-term threat to livestock and wildlife.

A tour of the Blancett ranch underscores the problems. At several of the wells where we stop, tanks dripping ethylene glycol (antifreeze) have not been properly fenced, leaving a toxic stew from which cattle can drink – and die. At others, barrels have not been netted. Trucks hurtle past us on roads that seem to be everywhere. Roads built too wide have destroyed vegetation in some areas; pipelines have not been reseeded in others. There are places where the ground is stained black from overspray and other byproducts that are less visible but potentially more hazardous. Emissions from the more than 400 wells on the Blancett allotment contribute to the estimated 6,900 tons of volatile organic compounds and 29,000 tons of nitrogen oxide that the oil and gas industry emits in San Juan County each year, creating surface ozone levels close to the EPA's maximum allowable standards.

Two years ago, the Blancetts locked the gates on the wells situated on their private land in a show of protest. It did little good since, throughout the West, companies can still obtain leases from the government for the mineral rights, a policy that dates back to the 1920 Mineral Leasing Act. It's a system that has left landowners feeling increasingly powerless – and furious at what they view as a violation of their right to decide what happens on the property they own. By the time I visited, contractors for the oil and gas industry had broken open the gates to the Blancett property so traffic could once again flow through.

Earlier that morning, before we headed out, I asked Linn Blancett how all the activity had affected him. "It's destroying my way of life," he said. A soft-spoken man with a no-nonsense manner who told me he never wanted to be anything but a rancher – as a child, he used to receive a calf on his birthday each year as a gift from his grandfather – Blancett has only eight cows, eight calves and a bull remaining. He sold off the rest of his cattle last fall to avoid watching his livestock struggle to survive on what he no longer feels is viable grazing land.

"This ranch should be my grandchildren's legacy," he said with a hard-bitten look. "I can't run cattle on it anymore."

But the Blancetts, like many Western ranchers, are not taking the Bush administration's policies lying down. Earlier this year, after the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a Resource Management Plan authorizing the creation of nearly 10,000 new oil and gas wells on public land in the San Juan Basin – where an estimated 19,000 producing wells already exist – Tweeti filed suit against Gale Norton and the Interior Department, accusing the government of failing to balance resource extraction with conservation, recreation and other uses of federal land. Among the other plaintiffs in the suit are the Natural Resources Defense Council, several Navajo Indian chapters – who say they were never consulted about the drilling plans – and the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a watchdog group based in nearby Durango, Colo.

None of the plaintiffs claim that extracting coal-bed methane gas, which is used to heat millions of American homes each year, is an inappropriate use of public land. But under federal law, they note, the BLM is supposed to balance this objective with the interests of other users (hunters, ranchers) and insure that drilling is done in a way that does not wreak havoc on a precious public resource of value to all. "The federal lands that we have in the West are all of our heritage, all of our legacy," says Tweeti Blancett, a feisty woman who has turned this issue into a personal crusade, and who is convinced the entire Rocky Mountain West will soon look like her ranch if landowners don't fight back. "What's happened here will happen throughout the American West if we don't get the public to understand the issues."

Coming from, say, a member of the Sierra Club, such a statement might not be terribly surprising – and would likely be ignored by Republicans, who long ago conceded the vote of avid environmentalists to Democrats. But Tweeti is no card-carrying green. Four years ago, she not only voted for George W. Bush but served as the co-chair of his campaign in San Juan County, an area of New Mexico that is heavily Republican and crucial to the President's hopes of winning this hotly contested swing state in November.

One week after my visit, Bush showed up in the town of Farmington for a campaign rally and called on his supporters to make sure turnout among New Mexican Republicans is high. This time around, Tweeti won't be helping out, having seen how little her voice counted next to that of the Bush administration's corporate friends. "I was naïve enough to think if I took the pictures to Washington, showed them the problems on our land and we all sat down, we could work on it," she says. In fact, Tweeti did meet directly both with Kathleen Clarke, head of the BLM, and Rebecca Watson, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals Management, as well as with the White House's Council on Environmental Quality. She showed them the pictures and explained the devastating impact of unfettered drilling. "They were very polite, they were very attentive," she says, "and when I walked out the door they probably said, 'What a waste of time.'"

These days, she says, members of the Bush administration don't even return her calls. "What I didn't factor in is the dollar sign, the billions," she concludes. "They were not going to listen to me over the largest industry on the face of the earth and the billions of dollars they generate."

It's a feeling ranchers in other parts of the West are beginning to share. In south-central New Mexico, along the border with Texas, a coalition of hunters, ranchers and conservationists has formed to oppose drilling in the Otero Mesa, a spectacular stretch of desert grassland that, with its pronghorn antelope, mule deer and array of migratory songbirds, is popular with hunters and environmentalists alike. The BLM would like to open 90 percent of the federal land in this pristine habitat to energy development, a plan opposed by groups ranging from the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance to the Paragon Foundation, a conservative property-rights organization. "We'd like it kept as it is," says Bob Jones, the foundation's president and a rancher.

Like the Blancetts, Jones finds it odd to be allied with environmentalists but sees the oil and gas industry as a common threat. "They trash the country terribly," he says of industry, "and if you're a rancher, it destroys a lot of your grass and turf and makes it awful hard to live in the middle of it." Also like the Blancetts, Jones believes the Bush administration's policies risk alienating many of its allies in the West. "The rural areas are what elected George W. Bush," he says. "He needs to pay some attention to some of them or he will lose their votes. They may not vote for John Kerry, but they also may not vote at all."

Just how politically sensitive this issue is in the West became evident two years ago in Wyoming, where Democrat Dave Freudenthal defeated Republican Eli Bebout, an oil and gas developer, in part by vowing to balance energy interests with the rights of landowners. Wyoming is a conservative state, but it is also home to the Powder River Basin, an 8-million-acre expanse of rugged prairie that stretches into Montana, and that the BLM would like to turn into the largest coal-bed methane production site in the country.

In April of 2002, after the BLM authorized drilling 51,000 new wells in the Wyoming part of the basin, the EPA reviewed the draft environmental study for the plan and deemed it "environmentally unsatisfactory." In response, J. Steven Griles, the deputy secretary of the Interior Department, wrote a memo pressuring the EPA to change its analysis. A former lobbyist for more than 40 oil, gas and electric companies, Griles has met repeatedly with past clients while in office, despite having signed a recusal agreement requiring him to avoid "any particular matter involving specific parties in which any of my former clients is or represents a party." (Friends of the Earth and other groups have called for Griles to step down, to no avail.)

Oil and gas drilling "is a huge issue out here," says Jill Morrison of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, an organization founded by ranchers and landowners several decades ago to rein in coal strip-mining in the region. The council's focus today is coal-bed methane extraction, whose primary waste product is water. Already, according to Morrison, 1-2 million barrels of water get pumped out every day in the Powder River Basin on a mere 12,000 producing wells, a sensitive issue in a state as arid as Wyoming. "This is water that comes from aquifers people use, so ranchers and farmers are losing their water wells," she says. "The second problem is that companies are discharging this water to the surface, and it's killing the native vegetation because it has a high sodium content."

This past March, Marjorie West, a rancher from Wyoming, appeared before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and described how coal-bed methane drilling had disrupted her life to the point that her husband had to start taking high-blood-pressure medication to deal with the stress. The drilling cut off the water supply from three artesian wells on their private land. Meanwhile, a nearby creek was flooded with waste water so loaded with sodium that it destroyed vegetation and 200 cottonwood trees lining the creek. "Our lives have been turned upside down, our health has deteriorated and we spend our days fighting with companies," West told the Senate. "We no longer have time for the ranching and farming that was our way of life."

West added that her experience was "not isolated. There are many landowners who have lost water wells or had companies come on their land without an agreement, building roads and well pads or discharging water that has killed soil and vegetation."

In fact, two days after touring the Blancett allotment, I met with a rancher named Ron Burkett, who lost an artesian well on his land when a pipeline built by a company disrupted the flow. Burkett's 4,000-acre cattle ranch in southern Colorado looks fairly isolated from afar – you have to drive several miles along dusty back roads to get there – but the closer you get, the more you notice the gas wells connected by pipelines that crisscross the terrain. Although the entire ranch is privately owned, Burkett doesn't control the subsurface rights, and companies can now drill wells every 160 acres (the old rule was every 320 acres).

"When they start doing this, especially on the scale that they're doing it on us, it's like suddenly instead of living out in the middle of nowhere with all the wildlife and quietude and so on, you're living in an industrial zone," says Burkett. "I can hear four gas wells pumping water from my house, and there's activity going by every day."

What most angers ranchers like the Blancetts is not that drilling is taking place but that, despite the scale of operations and the immense profits being generated, the oil and gas industry is not held accountable for unfenced pits or other negligent behavior. It is instead allowed to police itself.

"There are two on-ground BLM inspectors for all the wells in San Juan County," says Tweeti. "Do the math. There's no way they can monitor whether industry is following the rules." Steve Henke, head of the BLM's Farmington office, which oversees the Blancett allotment and much of the San Juan Basin, maintains that the system is working fine. "We have a program to achieve compliance" with federal standards to minimize adverse impacts, he told me. "It can range from an inspector making personal verbal contact [with a company], to a written order, to an incident of noncompliance, to a fine up to and including the suspension of operation on a lease."

I asked Henke how many leases had been suspended on the 19,000 wells in the Farmington area during the past year. He could not recall a single one. Did he really have enough inspectors to insure that industry followed the rules and respected other land users? "I think I do," he said. Sherrie Landon, one of the two on-ground inspectors employed by the BLM, happened to drop by when I was meeting with Tweeti. She offered a different view. "There's just so much to do out there, and we have a hard time just keeping up with the new disturbances," Landon told me. "It's so busy, and they're drilling so many more [wells]."

The rising frustration among ranchers and farmers, who increasingly view the Bush administration as the handmaiden of oil and gas interests, presents an opportunity for John Kerry: to outline an energy policy that will balance oil and gas development with their interests. Calling for limits on the density of wells and the scale of development, for a halt to leasing in sensitive habitats and for companies to be held accountable to higher standards – in Wyoming, for example, industry could be required to re-inject all the waste water back into the ground – would hardly leave Americans suddenly starved of natural gas.

As David Alberswerth of the Wilderness Society notes, the BLM itself has acknowledged that fully 88 percent of the natural gas on federal land is already available for development under current land-use prescriptions. The recent push by industry, aided and abetted by an administration only too happy to smooth the path, is simply a product of greed, Alberswerth contends.

Kerry has indicated that he favors limits on drilling in Otero Mesa, which, according to a poll conducted by New Mexico-based Research & Polling, is the approach preferred by 64 percent of the state's registered voters (and 47 percent of Republicans). His energy plan, however, is vague on details and calls for expanding natural gas supplies without addressing the concerns of ranchers like the Blancetts. On the day I visited, Tweeti Blancett was busy drafting a memo that a friend of hers had said he would pass along to Kerry's advisers. "There is a large block of votes in the West that is undecided," the memo began. "We have heard neither party address the rush to drill for oil and gas without regard for the other users of the land.... WE WANT SOMEBODY TO STAND UP FOR THE LEGACY OF THE WEST."

Tweeti smiled evasively when I asked whom she was planning to vote for this fall. "I'm not committing," she said. "I want to see something from these boys that concerns the West. I would like [Kerry] to take a stand – either one of them to take a stand – and say, 'Industry will comply with the existing regulations. Industry will be held responsible.'"

Eyal Press is a Nation contributing writer.