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The Iceberg

October 6, 2007

 The drama surrounding pressure from the oil and gas industry in Colorado to drill for natural gas within a three mile radius of Project Rulison – a 1969 underground nuclear blast site – is, as the expression goes, just the tip of the iceberg.

But what then, is `the iceberg’?

The ice-berg is six years of unfettered drilling for oil and gas – a mad stampede – throughout the the western states – with virtually no restraints since the Bush-Cheney presidency came to office now seven painful years ago. Under the cover of the energy crisis, when necessary invoking national security, Bush and Cheney have pried open federal lands for oil and gas drilling to an extent unprecedented in American history in what a Wilderness Society researcher aptly refers to as a `drill everything’ frenzy.

While state agencies here in Colorado and elsewhere in the West issue the drilling leases, for the most part, the drilling is being done on federal lands controlled by the Bureau of Land Management or the Department of Energy. During the Bush-Cheney years the BLM has supported a relentless push to turn over more public lands to oil and gas drillers, so much so that not much remains unspoiled. Bush gave the BLM and DOE the mandate to lease and drill everything. According to a BLM report , already in 2003, 85% of the oil and 88% of the gas on federal lands in Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Utah and Wyoming were under lease for oil and gas development.

Not much left to plunder.

And if I can make a comparison with Bush’s war in Iraq, in the same way that, should they win in 2008, Bush will leave Dems with a mess in Iraq that will be difficult or impossible to undo, he will leave behind a similar tsunamo of destruction on federal lands. Even if the Dems are sincere about reining in the oil and gas industry, they will have their work cut out for them, and not all of them – particularly in Colorado where a number of prominent Dems are themselves oil and gas industry lobbyists – are that sincere to begin with.

As if to put on the final touches, to hammer the last nail in the coffin, the new Bureau of Land Management Director Jim Caswell, who thinks Colorado voter backlash against the oil and gas industry `overblown’, let it be known that he sees no let up in the aggressive pace for Western oil and gas drilling. As if he had any interest in the matter he added (in an interview with the AP [10-6-2007]) `the key though, to me is how do we develop that resource in the most environmentally sensitive way’. Please.

The Broader Regional Oil and Gas Picture

The broader regional picture is chilling, best explained by environmental groups who have watched it all unfold, documented the process to the best of their ability and sent out the alarm.

According to an in-depth report, the Wilderness Society estimates that the Bush Administration has plans to approve as many as 126,000 leases to drill for oil and gas in the West. It should come as no surprise that Cheney’s home state of Wyoming with its small population and powerful oil and gas industry is slated to approve more than 50,000 new leases, Montana comes in next with 26000+, then comes Colorado with almost 23,000 anticipated. As `To Wild To Drill’ comments, these are conservative estimates and `likely underestimates the magnitude of drilling activities that could occur on public lands in the .

Here in Colorado, oil and gas interests have enjoyed the support and protection of (now ex) Governor, Bill Owens, a former oil and gas company lobbyist with close ties to the industry in Texas from where he hails and where, as governor, he spent many a weekend during his governorship huddling with his with oil and gas industry handlers.

Having Owens in the governorship in Denver and Bush and (more especially Cheney) entrenched in Washington for eight years singing a duet of narrow religion (on slightly different keys as Owens is Catholic and Bush Protestant) and free markets, provided the oil and gas industry with the necessary political chemistry for an unprecedented romp against nature, common sense and any restrictions limiting what has been an orgy of profit (in the name of progress and national security of course)

Owens Juggling His Affairs

Owens, a baseball fanatic who was never above pawning himself off as a sportscaster on the side (he wasn’t very good at it), tried somewhat unsuccessfully to juggle personal affairs with the affairs of state. The former were largely substantiated by Owen’s admission of marital infidelity. I’m actually trying to check into these but it seems that Owens’ staff was more adept in covering his personal footsteps (with a willing media?) far more effectively than an earlier Colorado Governor Roy Romer whose 16 year `intimate relationship with an aide the media pursued `like pitbulls’ – as one friend put it. In any case Owens appears to have been a busy `on the personal front’.

Although he received some heat for his personal affair (his wife left him for a while), the green light he gave to oil and gas interests to rape the state hardly produced a murmur in the press statewide. Another one of those Christian fundamentalist moral hypocrites a la Ted Haggard, his personal dalliance probably cost Owens a serious run for the 2008 Republican nomination for the presidency, this according to a number of conservative commetators and blogs. Since leaving office he has faded back into the lucrative corporate oblivion from when he first emerged.

Concerning Owens’ concern with the affairs of state, Coloradoans are just now learning the degree to which Owens continued lobbying for oil and gas interests while in office. The welfare of the state’s oil and gas industry was never far from his thoughts. During the eight years Owens was governor of Colorado oil and gas interests exploded to a $22 billion a year industry employing 70,000 people statewide. The oil and gas lobby should build him a statue and maybe they already have for all I know. Key to opening the oil and gas floodgates was the reshaping of the state regulatory body, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). Under Owen’s inspiring direction, 5 of the 7 commissioners charged with conserving the state’s oil and gas came from the oil and gas industry itself. What a surprise. Over the Owens years, the COGCCs record was second to none in granting oil and gas leases to drilling companies on a virtually `come one come all’ basis. These companies, in turn, have racked up a rather extraordinary record of drilling violations that resulted in 1500 complaints of environmental degradation, threats to public health and wild life maintenance over a five year period. Given an indication of the COGCC’s level of vigilance and defense of public interest, of these complaints the commission found a whopping 23 complaints worthy of fines.
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If the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission could not find the time to fine oil and gas drillers, this is quite understandable to all but the most unfairest of critics. The Commission was indeed very busy, handing out drilling leases to one and all. In 2006 the Commission set a record, granting 5904 drilling permits. There are some press estimates, after a slow start that in 2007 the number might reach 6000. The state currently has 30,000 active oil and gas wells but that number is expected to double in just six years. By way of example, in Garfield County, Colorado, the county that currently hosts over half of the state’s entire inventory of gas drill rigs (somewhere over 120), COGCC and the county ok’d 1623 new leases last year alone. Already in 2007 1800 leases have been granted and it is expected that before year’s end it is possible that the number will exceed 2300 at the current pace. Such an explosion of leases makes it very difficult for state regulatory agencies to monitor drilling standards and abuses even if they wanted to do so.

(next – Colorado’s House Bill 1341 to reorganize the COGCC. An honest enough attempt at reform but how effective can it be)

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