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Pumping vs. preservation

JUDITH KOHLER/Associated Press Writer
** ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY DEC. 21 ** Sun sets over the Roan Plateau as traffic flows along Interstate 70 near Silt, Colo., in this photograph taken on Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2003. The Roan Plateau is at the center of a debate in northwest Colorado because of its vast natural gas reserves and its status as a wildlife haven. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
AP | AP

“”We like the view, we like the fresh air, we like the quiet, we like the privacy,” Garland Anderson said of the retirement home the couple bought in 1989, when the region was still struggling to recover from an oil-shale bust.

The Andersons are among those who believe the Western economy must undergo a fundamental shift, from the extraction of natural resources to one that encourages preservation and uses its natural beauty to lure tourists. It is a philosophy that is running smack into the government’s push to speed up energy development in the Rockies to ease the nation’s dependence on foreign sources of oil and gas.

Industry representatives insist they can help meet the demands of an energy-hungry country in a responsible way, pointing to new technology and drilling techniques that have less impact on the environment.

Bev and Sam Sharp hope that isn’t idle talk. Four years ago, the retired teachers moved from Southern California to a house atop a bluff in Pinedale, in the western foothills of Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains. They live along a migration route for mule deer and pronghorn antelope. It is thought to be one of the longest such corridors in the Western Hemisphere.

But hundreds of gas wells have been drilled in the Pinedale area and more are in the works.

“”People are moving this way for beautiful landscapes and wildlife, and we’re afraid that’s going to be taken out at an alarmingly quick rate,” Bev Sharp said.

The Sharps and the Andersons are “”lone eagles,” generally home-based entrepreneurs or retirees who, along with tourists, have become key players in an economy tied to the quality of the natural surroundings. They are clear about their desire for responsible development.

Oily economics

Others, however, are eager to cash in on the new energy boom. Drilling is expected to raise $11.6 million in property taxes and $1.6 million in other taxes for Colorado’s Garfield County this year alone.

“”We are basically pro-energy,” said Don Davis, a commissioner in nearby Rio Blanco County. He said the industry, from coal mining to gas drilling, contributes as much as 80 percent of the county’s revenue.

Still, more than 100 economists this month voiced concern about the government’s environmental policies. In a letter to President Bush and Western governors, they said the environment is arguably the region’s “”greatest, long-run economic strength.”

They also said the energy bust in the mid-1980s forced communities from Montana to New Mexico to diversify their business base – progress they fear might be erased by a return to oil and gas.

One of those economists was Tom Power, chairman of the University of Montana’s Department of Economics. In an interview, he criticized the drive to increase energy production in the Rockies, calling it an effort to “”recreate an economy built around intensive exploitation of the natural landscape for commercial purposes.”

“”It directly threatens the source of growth and prosperity this region has had,” he said.

Industry representatives say the huge gas reserves will keep them in the Rockies for a long time. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts the nation’s gas use will skyrocket at least 50 percent by 2025, and production is declining in older fields such as the Gulf Coast. In the Rockies, gas production in the Rockies increased 162 percent from 1980 to 2001, according to the National Petroleum Council and nonpartisan U.S. Potential Gas Committee research group.

“”In a national sense, the Rockies have the most undeveloped potential that we can access,” said Joe Jaggers, vice president of exploration and production in the Denver office of the Oklahoma-based Williams energy company.

Mining tourism

Energy officials are already scrambling to hire workers. San Juan College in Farmington, N.M., home to the Regional Energy Training Center, has received a $2 million federal grant to boost oil and gas training.

So far, 1,600 people have registered for classes at the college, which is expanding the programs through Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs.

All the energy companies in northwest New Mexico’s gas-rich San Juan Basin are facing severe labor shortages, said Jay Metzler, who works at the training center. He said the companies are begging for workers, offering starting salaries of $13 to $18 an hour in newspaper and radio advertisements.

Power of the University of Montana sounded a more skeptical note. He said federal labor figures show that mining and energy accounted for less than 2 percent of the jobs in much of the Rockies in 2000. Technological advances also mean oil and gas companies employ fewer people, and most good-paying jobs go to nomadic, highly trained workers.

Oil and gas drilling can also dampen other parts of the economy, said Josh Joswick, a commissioner in southwest Colorado’s La Plata County. He said as much as 60 percent of the county’s property tax revenue comes from oil and gas, but tourism is also a major revenue source.

“”That is affected by oil and gas development,” he said. “”All of a sudden your beautiful little tourist area is not quite as beautiful, and people will probably start reconsidering whether to spend as much time here as you would hope.”

Keith Goddard of Rifle said he questions whether some of the hunters he has guided for years in western Colorado will return if there is widespread drilling on the Roan Plateau, home to some of the area’s largest deer and elk herds.

“”Guys paying $2,500 to $3,500 don’t want to be sitting down, and then here’s a gas rig going,” Goddard said. “”That puts me out of business.

“”But even if I weren’t a hunter, I’d be concerned. What price do you put on wildlife?”


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