Some in GOP fighting Western energy drilling

Some in GOP fighting Western energy drilling

Western Republicans are starting to buck against oil and gas drilling on federal lands prized for their wildlife and recreational opportunities.

Amid a Western energy boom promoted by the Bush administration, Republican officeholders from Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico and California recently have called for bans on drilling and other development on large blocs of national forest lands in their states.

Critics of drilling say their objections reflect growing opposition among traditionally conservative voters.

“You are seeing more and more opposition from people who are concerned about hunting, about fishing, about drinking water supplies, about a state’s way of life,” says Chris Wood, vice president for conservation of Trout Unlimited, a national fish conservation group.

Among recent events:

”¢ Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., attached a measure to a Senate spending bill that would ban future oil and gas leasing on federal forest and rangeland along his state’s Rocky Mountain Front, a 100-mile stretch of dramatic peaks and wildlife-rich canyons. Burns, who faces a stiff re-election challenge this fall, had previously opposed proposals for a federal buyout of existing leases.

Ӣ California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger petitioned the federal government to permanently protect 4.4 million acres of national forest in his state from road-building and other development.

”¢ In New Mexico, GOP Rep. Heather Wilson recently decided to co-sponsor legislation that would block federal plans to drill for natural gas in the Valle Vidal, home to one of New Mexico’s largest elk herds.

”¢ Wyoming GOP Sen. Craig Thomas said in an interview that most national forest areas should be off-limits to drilling “because they’re part of our tradition, part of our future.”

Mark Rey, the Bush administration’s undersecretary of Agriculture who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, says the recent objections do not represent a Western revolt against drilling, but rather a general concern that “development is done sensitively and well.”

Since a 2001 government task force recommended expanding domestic oil and gas production, the Bush administration has pushed federal agencies to expedite drilling on federal lands in the West. Drilling permits approved on federal land jumped from 3,540 in fiscal 2002 to 7,018 in fiscal 2005, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

“In a sense the administration made this happen … by pushing so hard,” says Peter Aengst, who works on energy issues from the Bozeman, Mont., office of the Wilderness Society. “People are saying I don’t want to see that happen everywhere.”

Case in point, according to Aengst, is the Wyoming Range in the Bridger-Teton National Forest south of Jackson where the Forest Service has put 44,000 acres up for oil and gas leasing.

On July 10, an Interior Department review board temporarily blocked the first lease sale in response to an appeal by environmentalists and sportsmen groups.

Copyright 2006 USA TODAY

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