BLM's energy push stifles wildlife watch, critics say
By Blaine Harden
The Washington Post
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STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES, 2004
A drilling rig operates in the Jonah gas field near Pinedale, Wyo., with other sites in the background that have been drilled and now are pumping gas. The Wind River Mountains are in the distance.
Pronghorn antelope stand in a field of sagebrush on the Pinedale Anticline where a natural-gas drilling rig is working in the background. The anticline is the winter range for the antelope and mule deer.
PINEDALE, Wyo. — The Bureau of Land Management, caretaker of more land and wildlife than any federal agency, routinely restricts the ability of its biologists to monitor wildlife damage caused by surging energy drilling on federal land, according to BLM officials and bureau documents.
By keeping many wildlife biologists out of the field doing paperwork on new drilling permits and by diverting agency money intended for wildlife conservation to energy programs, the officials and documents say, the BLM has compromised its ability to deal with environmental consequences of the drilling boom it is encouraging on public lands.
The Pinedale region, on the high sage plains of western Wyoming, has become one of the most productive and profitable natural-gas fields on federal land in the Rockies. With the aggressive backing of the Bush administration, many members of Congress and the energy industry, at least a sixfold expansion in drilling is likely here in the coming decade.
Recent studies of mule deer and sage grouse, however, show steep declines in their numbers since the gas boom began here about five years ago: a 46 percent decline for mule deer and a 51 percent decline for breeding male sage grouse. Early results from a study of pronghorn antelope show they, too, avoid the gas fields.
Yet as these findings have come in, wildlife biologists in the BLM's Pinedale office rarely have gone into the field to monitor wildlife.
"The BLM is pushing the biologists to be what I call 'biostitutes,' rather than allow them to be experts in the wildlife they are supposed to be managing," said Steve Belinda, 37, who last week quit his job as one of three wildlife biologists in the office because he said he was required to spend nearly all his time working on drilling requests. "They are telling us that if it is not energy-related, you are not working on it."
Belinda, who had worked for 16 years as a wildlife biologist for the BLM and the Forest Service, said he has quit to work here for a national conservation group, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, as its energy initiative manager.
"It is a huge attraction for biologists to work in western Wyoming," he said. "But in this [BLM] office, they want you to look at things in a single-minded way. I have spent less than 1 percent of my time in the field. If we continue down this trend of keeping biologists in the office and preventing them from doing substantive work, there is a train wreck coming for wildlife."
Belinda is not alone in his view that the BLM is neglecting its congressional mandate to manage federal lands for "multiple use."
The agency for years has reallocated money Congress intended for wildlife conservation to spending on energy. A national evaluation by the agency of its wildlife expenditures found three years ago that about one-third of designated wildlife money was spent "outside" of wildlife programs.
An internal BLM follow-up study found last year that this widespread diversion has caused "numerous lost opportunities" to protect wildlife.
The sum effect of these diversions, the study said, has damaged the credibility of land-use planning by the BLM. These findings were echoed last year in a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which said BLM managers order their field staff to devote increasing time to processing drilling permits, leaving less time to mitigate consequences of oil and gas extraction.
"It has become almost a cultural practice in the BLM to spend money that is appropriated for one purpose for whatever purpose somebody deems is a higher priority," said a senior BLM official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he said he would be fired for speaking publicly. "There is really no penalty for this."
The BLM's Wyoming director, Bob Bennett, disagreed strongly, saying the BLM is "doing our level best to deal with the impacts" of energy development on wildlife.
"If a wildlife biologist is working on an application for a permit to drill, that doesn't mean he is not doing wildlife work," Bennett said. "The wildlife job is a broad job, and it does involve energy."
In Wyoming, Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal, state wildlife managers, environmental groups, many local residents and some oil-industry executives have been angered by what they describe as growing evidence of a lack of balance in the federal push for more drilling — even as scientific studies show significant and worrisome declines in wildlife around gas fields. Those studies have been funded by the BLM and the energy industry.
The BLM's pace of issuing new permits to drill in Wyoming and across the West has continued to increase, even though the oil and gas industry — chronically short of drilling rigs and skilled workers — cannot drill nearly enough holes to keep up with the permits already granted. In the past two years, the BLM issued a record 13,070 drilling permits on federal land, but industry drilled 5,844 wells.
"The pressure comes from Washington," said Freudenthal, who said he has assigned more state wildlife biologists to Pinedale and other active drilling areas in an attempt to keep up with the federal push. "As you go up the chain of command of BLM and into the Department of Interior, I am not sure they share our commitment to balance. No matter how large the benefits are from this development, it does not justify turning a blind eye to the environment."
Bennett said his agency would like to "take it slow and easy. We are trying to do that to the extent we can." But he said the bureau is under "a lot of national pressure, from industry and from Congress. The demand for gas is a real issue to people."
Pinedale is an especially profitable place to address that demand. With more gas extracted from a smaller footprint than anywhere else on federal land in the West, it produced an estimated $4 billion worth of gas last year.
In the Pinedale BLM office, as in agency offices across the West, monitoring and research on the impact of drilling on wildlife almost never are done by staff biologists, according to Roger Bankert, associate field manager for lands and minerals.
"This is an energy office, and our biologists don't have time to do the monitoring," Bankert said. He said it is "done by private consultants who are hired by the energy companies," with BLM approval.
Under a federal law intended to enlist the local community in the planning of oil and gas development, the Interior Department has named an advisory group to study and make recommendations about the impact of drilling here. The chairman of the group, Linda Baker, says she is alarmed by what she describes as BLM refusal to listen to her group's advice or adapt its management to findings that drilling is harming wildlife.
"We are seeing the handing over of a multiple-use valley to the energy industry," Baker said. "This is a disaster in the making."
Rather than slowing down to assess wildlife impact and to allow energy companies to catch up to drilling permits already issued, as recommended by Baker's group, state officials and several national environmental organizations, the BLM appears to be stepping on the accelerator. It recently released a proposal that recommends granting permits for drilling 3,100 more wells in nearby Jonah Field — a sixfold increase over the number of current wells.
Federal management of drilling in the area has angered a former senior energy executive who lives near Pinedale.
"There is no well-thought-out, overall development plan for this field," said Kirby Hedrick, a former vice president at Phillips Petroleum in charge of worldwide exploration and now a member of the board of directors of Noble Energy in Houston. "The BLM has been approving plans ad hoc."
How many BTU's can you get out of a spotted owl????
I pick energy
they will alway be animals its not like they are fragile or anything
Im betting they will be around after we are gone
Don't you mean a sage grouse?
We're talking Wyoming
When the lights go out, and Momma and the kiddies are huddled around that little flickering candle, scared to death (I have seen electric company commercials like this), and she is on the phone wondering when the electricity will come back on, she won't give a damn about pronghorns or owls or Alaskan caribou.
Tell the little $#!+s to put up or shut up. If they use electricity, natural gas, drive a car, they need to STFU.
That is IF drilling for oil and gas even bothers these animals in the first place.
I have seen pictures of caribou mating beside the Alaskan pipeline. And apparently enjoying themselves. I don't think they noticed the pipeline.
Well I bet they all use at least electricity.
I doubt any of this gas stays in Wyoming