IMAGE: COLORADO PLATEAU
Ed Andrieski  /  AP
Roads leading to gas drilling rigs can be seen atop the Roan Plateau near Parachute, Colo. The state has expressed concerns with the Bush administration's stand on mitigating drilling impacts.
updated 8/5/2005 10:06:53 AM ET 2005-08-05T14:06:53

With drilling rigs sprouting across the Rockies, federal land managers have quietly instituted a policy that environmentalists fear will let companies off the hook when it comes to restoring land damaged by oil and gas development.

The Bureau of Land Management in February decided offsite improvements meant to compensate for well-site damage are optional. BLM officials say they can still withhold drilling permits if companies balk at mitigation work, but critics say the change symbolizes the Bush administration's push for more and faster domestic energy production.

"There's no excuse to so completely destroy a site that you need offsite mitigation," said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Laramie, Wyo. "(But) if offsite mitigation is going to be an outcome, then it should be required."

The Rockies have become ground zero in the rush to find new domestic sources of natural gas, oil and coal-bed methane. Industry experts say Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico have vast stores of energy waiting to be tapped and the BLM has been swamped for several years now with permits to drill.

The BLM's decision doesn't apply when endangered species or national historic sites are part of a potential drilling site.

Carrot and stick vowed
Jamie Connell, manager of the BLM field office in Glenwood Springs, said the agency can negotiate with companies and require follow-through if mitigation work is part of the project.

"I have the carrot and the stick," Connell said.

EnCana Oil and Gas USA, one of the largest natural gas producers in Wyoming and Colorado, will consider offsite mitigation even though it is voluntary, said Eric Marsh, a vice president and the company's business unit leader in the southern Rockies.

"We think it's a win-win," Marsh said.

IMAGE: BOB ELDERKIN
Ed Andrieski  /  AP
Bob Elderkin, a retired Bureau of Land Management employee, is pictured at a gas well site near Rifle, Colo.
Others believe the BLM's decision formalizes a strategy used by companies to avoid strict environmental standards at the well site.

"It's just one more thing to streamline gas production and remove any roadblocks and reduce costs," said Bob Elderkin, a retired BLM employee in western Colorado.

While with BLM, Elderkin said, he proposed requiring offsite improvements to make up for roads, traffic and other developments tied to new wells. One idea was burning pinon and juniper trees, and planting sagebrush and native grasses to open up more wildlife habitat.

"I sold it to my boss and they said, "Go,'" he said.

Offsite up to company
Now, however, the BLM can impose onsite restrictions but can make offsite improvements part of the drilling permit only if the company offers.

The guidelines will be reviewed before becoming permanent. Offsite improvements were never mandatory, although a few BLM offices were starting to require them, said Kermit Witherbee, deputy chief of the BLM's mineral fluids division in Washington.

"There was a little bit of interpretation about what we can and can't do," Witherbee said.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife has asked what the new policy means for the Roan Plateau, a mineral-rich landmark in western Colorado the BLM plans to start leasing for oil and gas drilling. Last spring, the division said making offsite mitigation optional appeared to conflict with the BLM's plans for minimizing the effects of development.

Fewer inspections
A recent report by the Government Accountability Office found the BLM's environmental inspections dropped as oil and gas drilling permits more than tripled from 1999 to 2004. About 97 percent of those permits were issued in the Rockies.

Offsite mitigation is one option for protecting the environment and losing it would further tip the scale in the industry's favor, said Steve Smith of the regional office of The Wilderness Society. He questioned whether companies will voluntarily make offsite improvements and whether BLM will use its broad discretion to ensure companies protect the environment.

Elderkin, who worked on offsite mitigation while with BLM, is having second thoughts about its effectiveness.

"I had no idea how widespread this drilling would be," he said.

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