The Collateral Damage of Energy Development

Driving home in the night from Little Guy Wrestling practice last week, the once-great emptiness west of the highway was broken by the drill rig, lit like a Christmas tree, in front of the dark bulk of Ear Mountain, the peak made famous by A.B. Guthrie's classic novel "The Big Sky." We knew it would come. The packed community meetings at Choteau's Stage Stop Inn, the big water trucks and pickups with Colorado license plates in the parking lot at the Exxon, the gathering excitement--here on the Rocky Mountain Front--of change, lease and royalty money, jobs, new people coming in, and if the resource proves strong and profitable, maybe even a way of life ending and a new one beginning.

For the past decade, I've written, sometimes it seems endlessly, about energy development, traveling, looking, interviewing and studying. I've been objective (I hope), knowing that energy development is a given. I've argued with those who say they are, for instance, "against fracking," pointing out that it is fine to be against irresponsible fracking that ruins property values or pollutes water supplies with spills, or against drilling in critical wildlife habitat, but that to be against fracking is like saying, "I'm against cars" or "I'm against people building houses."

But as we were taught as children, there's a right way and wrong way to do any job. We are accepting too much now, not asking the right--or any--questions of our government. It is as if we as a people have forgotten that we are the government, that we are always free to question, demand, even fight for what we believe in. And--judging by the news--and looking closely at where the money is flowing in the stock market, we are about to pay a very high price for our loss of backbone.

Let's look at this piece, posted here at F&S about the black bears being shot by wildlife officials around the tar sands project in Alberta, and the accompanying revelations about the plans to kill wolves that prey on caribou herds weakened by habitat loss due to oil and gas development and the tar sands project.

Now this, from the Sublette Examiner in Wyoming, describing the anger over the decline of the once-magnificent mule deer herd on the Mesa near Pinedale.

The Examiner story also discusses plans for "mitigation" of the impacts of development on the winter range there. Mitigation, biologists will tell you, is a poor substitute for not destroying a resource in the first place. Winter ranges that are the product of 10,000 years of careful selection are seldom successfully replaced by a planting of forage over yonder, somewhere out of the way of our plans.

An industry with the kind of money made in the tar sands could spend a bit to safeguard garbage pits so that the killing of black bears would not be necessary. Energy development on US public lands could be conducted in ways that have less impact on big game like antelope and caribou. But lower impact methods such as phased development of the resource, intensive reclamation of well sites and roads, winter range protections, and so on, cost money.

Not enough of us have stood up to demand that they be used. And so they have not been used. It is much easier--and so much cheaper--to shoot wolves, or to plant a bit of grass and call it winter range. Like the old façade towns in a Western movie, it all looks real until you pass through the batwing doors of the saloon and find yourself standing on bare ground, with emptiness all around.

In one part of an energy series I wrote for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's Bugle magazine in 2004, I researched the use of natural gas in the US, and concluded that, if we drilled the entire Rocky Mountain Front of Montana, given the strength of the resource as it was then estimated, we could supply the natural gas needs of the US for three entire days (although 35% of that gas would be wasted in our relatively inefficient power plants). My point was that we need to ask a question: do we industrialize one of the most pristine landscapes on earth, the home of Montana's largest elk herd, for three days' worth of gas?

I was so wrong that, today, it makes me ashamed to think of it. I assumed that the harvested gas and oil resources, like the coal resources of our Northern Plains and Appalachians, would be used here in the US. I forgot that we are enmeshed in an economy where energy needs are insatiable, and post-national. Like the oil of North Dakota's Bakken Field, the alleged oil of ANWR, and the tar sands of Alberta, the natural gas harvested in front of Ear Mountain is a global commodity.

Amid much pro- and con- talk of the US as an energy colony for the rest of the world (jobs!), there is something profound that is being left out: We do not have the environmental and wildlife protections that we need to become the world's energy colony without experiencing the same kinds of losses that the citizens of any other colonized nation in history could describe. If the US is to become the natural gas source for Japan, the coal source for China, and part of the oil source for the entire global market, those of us who value the American outdoors better learn to step up and speak truth to power.

Among the sportsmen's groups that are deeply involved in these efforts to speak truth to power right now are the men and women of Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development.

It is time for more hunters and fishermen to educate themselves on what is at stake here.