Jun 2, 2011

During his 40 years as a river rafting outfitter, Tom Kleinschnitz has floated thousands of people down Utah’s Green River. Customers from across the country pay upward of $1,000 for five-day trips through Desolation Canyon, a stretch of rapids and untamed beauty that has been called one of the wildest places in the lower 48. Now, Kleinschnitz and other longtime river rats are worried about the future of the Green and their guiding businesses.

The threat? America’s thirst for energy. Public lands around Desolation Canyon have been leased for natural gas drilling, part of a boom that is consuming many of the West’s last wide-open spaces.

Energy sprawl is creeping across public lands in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Dakotas. Nearly 120,000 wells were drilled West-wide during the past decade, and more than 44 million acres of federal public lands are now leased to energy companies, mostly for natural gas drilling. “My customers tell me they didn’t realize there was this much drilling going on,” says Kleinschnitz, whose company, Adventure Bound, is based in Grand Junction. “People come out here to see nature and wildlife. They don’t want to see gas fields.”

Frackin’ Wells! Natural gas drilling is exempt from environmental laws like the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. Photo: Courtesy Ecoflight


Speaking Up

For boaters, hikers, mountain bikers, climbers, hunters, fishermen and other lovers of the great outdoors, natural gas exploration is eliminating some of the last unmarred scenic landscapes. Recreational crown jewels such as Wyoming’s Red Desert and Upper Green River, Colorado’s Roan Plateau and public lands adjacent to Utah’s Arches and Canyonlands national parks are either already being drilled or under threat.

The outdoor industry is becoming increasingly vocal about the need to minimize the damage caused by drilling. “Climbers don’t want to go to an area that is trashed and littered with oil and gas rigs,” says Jason Keith, policy director for the Access Fund, which works with 90 local climbing clubs nationwide to protect access to rock climbing areas. “We have a very real interest in preserving the character of the locations where we love to climb. Climbing is not just about getting a workout, or we’d go to a gym.”

Access Fund is part of the Outdoor Alliance, which was formed in part to counter the blitz of energy exploration on public lands during the past decade. The alliance also includes the International Mountain Bicycling Association, American Canoe Association, American Hiking Society, American Whitewater and the Winter Wildlands Alliance. While their mission is to promote conservation that benefits human-powered recreation, these groups must toe a fine line when opposing energy extraction, lest they appear partisan.

The International Mountain Bike Association took heat from some members when it sent out action alerts related to proposed gas drilling near Moab, Utah, in 2009. “People want to ride their mountain bikes in beautiful landscapes, but we also realize that energy development needs to take place,” says IMBA communications director Mark Eller. “We make sure there are trails directly at stake before we get involved.” IMBA will not raise objections if gas wells, for instance, would ruin the views from prime singletrack. But it will act if the roads associated with gas field development would trample existing trails.

Hoping to prevent drilling in wilderness-quality roadless areas, a large group of Westerners including rafting outfitters, guides and other sportsmen packed a hearing room in Washington, DC, in February to testify on behalf of a Wild Lands policy instituted by the Obama administration. The Wild Lands executive order would have required the Bureau of Land Management to inventory wilderness quality lands, with an eye toward preserving some of these areas for recreation and conservation under the BLM’s multiple-use mandate. Critics, however, called the Wild Lands policy a land grab and a jobs killer and, in April, the new Congress killed the policy and prohibited the Interior Department from funding similar initiatives.

Supporters were frustrated. “The outdoor recreation industry is dependent on the health of our public lands,” testified Peter Metcalf, CEO of Black Diamond Equipment. “These lands, in their natural undeveloped state, have economic value.” Affecting roughly five million acres, the area of lands that would be protected is tiny compared to the 44 million acres leased for drilling. A long list of outfitters and guides also signed a letter to the Natural Resources Committee in support of Wild Lands, saying that protected public lands create jobs and bring more long-term prosperity than the boom-and-bust of extractive industries.

Waste of the West: Drilling leaves stunning landscapes like Colorado’s Roan Plateau looking like abandoned subdivisions. Photo: Courtesy Ecoflight

Clean Natural Gas?

Drilling has slowed since 2008, when the economic meltdown and a glut of natural gas on the market depressed prices, and due to the Obama administration’s efforts to end the fast-track leasing policies of the Bush White House. Even so, the leasing of public lands continues under Obama, just at a more measured pace. Gas drilling is problematic for outdoors lovers because the gas fields sprawl across large areas. These gas fields are also a new source of air and water pollution. Visit any of the major gas fields of the West and it becomes clear that so-called “clean natural gas” is a misnomer. Sure, gas emits fewer pollutants and greenhouse gasses that coal when burned, but extracting it is dirty business.

Most of the remaining domestic reserves of natural gas are so-called “unconventional” deposits trapped in shale, coal and sandstone. To free the gas, companies pump chemicals, sand and water into the ground under high pressure to fracture, or frack, the rock formations. Water is then pumped out of the fractured formations, freeing the gas, which is piped to processing facilities to remove impurities. This toxic “produced water” is then dumped in holding ponds to evaporate. The water from hydraulic fracturing has been found to contain benzene, toluene and other carcinogens, along with low levels of radiation in some cases.

This type of drilling is legal only because gas drillers have been exempted from certain provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. Legislation to remove these exemptions has been introduced in Congress but its prospects of passage are dim. The Environmental Protection Agency has begun a study of hydraulic fracturing to determine its impact on groundwater, but efforts are underway in Congress to cut funding.

A Gassy Future

Ironically, environmental initiatives are partly responsible for this rush to extract more natural gas. Groups including the Sierra Club have helped defeat plans to build up to 100 new coal-fired power plants in the United States, including in Colorado. Instead, utilities are building gas-fired power plants. Electricity from natural gas now comprises about 25 percent of the nation’s energy supply, and that number is growing. Meantime, Western coal mines are looking for new markets and have begun shipping more product to China. This would undo all the environmental gains associated with stopping the coal power plants in the United States.

Outdoor enthusiasts will become more familiar with gas wells on public lands. The United States will need 14 percent more energy in 2035 than it did in 2008, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Much of that new energy is expected to come from domestic natural gas. As the trade group America’s Natural Gas Alliance says, the United States has more natural gas than Saudi Arabia has oil.

The only question is whether this gas will be extracted with the same crude techniques used today, or if new policies and laws will require drilling to be done in a manner that minimizes pollution and visual scarring. “A society needs places to escape,” says Metcalf. “We in the United States don’t have a Sistine Chapel or pyramids. But we do have Yellowstone and Arches National Park and Canyonlands. Can’t we preserve some places?” Otherwise, he says, “our children and grandchildren will curse us.”

Aerial Observer: Bruce Gordon of Ecoflight takes people up in the air to view the full damage wells dish out on natural landscape.

Eco Eye in the Sky

Pilot Bruce Gordon has watched from the sky as gas fields have proliferated across Western Colorado. “I can’t fly for 30 minutes in any direction without seeing drilling rigs and roads and well pads,” says Gordon, founder of Aspen-based Ecoflight. The nonprofit flies politicians, community leaders, students, journalists and environmental activists over energy fields to provide an aerial perspective.

“By getting people up in the air we hope to inform the public. A lot of people say they didn’t know how expansive the gas fields are.”

Here are a few areas that Gordon and conservationists are eyeing:

Hunters call Colorado’s Roan Plateau the “deer factory.” But the deer factory’s once-prolific game herds are in trouble. The Bush administration leased 54,000 acres atop the 3,000-foot plateau to energy companies, and opponents are now suing to overturn the deal. Meantime, much of the land at the base of the Roan has already been drilled. “I used to deer hunt up there. But now it’s not worth it,” says Bill Dvorak, who works with Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development. “It’s all roads and pipelines and well pads.” Visit saveroanplateau.org to learn more.

A proposal to drill 136 wells across 400 acres in Wyoming’s Hoback Basin outside of Jackson has generated stiff opposition from local residents. To develop the gas field the company would plow 30 miles of new roads into a roadless area that is now home to native cutthroat trout. Visit wyomingrange.org

The Obama administration suspended multiple gas drilling leases around Utah’s Arches and Canyonlands national parks after determining that they were granted improperly during the last days of the Bush administration. Drilling here would have wrecked views and jeopardized climbing, hiking and mountain biking access to the popular Courthouse Pasture. But the drill rigs could come back. The leases are to come back up for sale again in 2012.
Read more about the drilling here.

Paul Tolme’s work has appeared in Newsweek, National Wildlife, Popular Mechanics and Ski. See more of his writing at journalistontheloose.com.