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Drilling for Natural Gas in Wyoming Raises Debate

June 12, 2008 at 6:30 PM EST
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Wyoming has some of the largest natural gas reserves in the country -- underneath public land -- leading to a debate over whether to drill or preserve the land for other uses. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports from Wyoming.
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SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: Gary Amerine makes his living as an outfitter in the rugged mountains of Wyoming. He’s raised his children riding horses, and he guides hunters and fishermen into the Wyoming Range, the snowcapped peaks south of Grand Teton National Park that provide the backdrop to his ranch.

It’s a range that Amerine lovingly calls “Wyoming’s namesake mountains.”

GARY AMERINE, Outfitter: Where I spent my adult lifetime is the Wyoming Range. I’ve guided, hunted, fished, snow-machined in that country since the ’60s.

SPENCER MICHELS: Now Amerine is once again saddling up for the Wyoming Range, but this time he’s entering new territory: politics.

GARY AMERINE: This is your steering wheel, OK?

SPENCER MICHELS: OK. We’re good.

Amerine is angered by the federal government’s decision to consider 44,000 acres of public land in the Wyoming Range for natural gas drilling.

So what’s in this range here? I mean, is there any development? Is there fishing? Are there animals? What?

GARY AMERINE: There’s no development. There’s elk, deer and moose. There’s also bighorn sheep. Antelope will get to the base of the higher mountains.

The preservation campaign

SPENCER MICHELS: Amerine has watched the rapid expansion of natural gas drilling about an hour south of his ranch. And he has welcomed the financial windfall that has brought, filling the coffers of state and local governments and providing thousands of jobs. But he worries that development like this would ruin the mountains.

So they want to put a lot of wells in there?

He says it's time to draw a line, to exclude scenic places like the Wyoming Range, which is part of the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

GARY AMERINE: I have clients that have told me they don't come to the mountain range just to visit an industrial development. They come to see the pristine environment the Wyoming Range has to offer.

GARY AMERINE: We're about to get over the top of where they want to drill.

SPENCER MICHELS: Hunters and anglers like Amerine across the Western states have created a Sportsmen's Bill of Rights and are now lobbying Congress to protect 1.2 million acres in the Wyoming Range and other areas from oil and gas development.

GARY AMERINE: It's so spread out that the infrastructure, once they develop it, will be huge.

SPENCER MICHELS: They claim the Bush administration's push for domestic energy production has led to faster approvals for drill permits and has weakened environmental oversight.

Walt Gasson, who worked for Wyoming Game and Fish Department for 31 years, now heads the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, one of the many sportsmen's groups involved in the campaign.

WALT GASSON, Wyoming Wildlife Federation: Right now in Wyoming, sportsmen and their families are being impacted by energy development in the places that they call home. I refer to those as their home place, the place they camp, the place they fish, the place they hunt.

When that happens in Wyoming, that's a really big deal. That's akin to touching those people's hearts, and that's why they're engaged now like never before.

Gas demands

SPENCER MICHELS: For the energy industry already drilling in Wyoming, it's boom time.

So $4.1 billion profit, I mean, that sounds like a lot of money.

RANDY TEEUWEN, Encana Oil and Gas: It is a lot of money.

SPENCER MICHELS: How do you justify that?

RANDY TEEUWEN: We justify it because our shareholders expect that kind of value out of our industry.

SPENCER MICHELS: Encana Oil and Gas currently drills on 750 wells in the Jonah Fields south of the Wyoming Range and has recently been given government approval to more than double its number of wells.

Encana's spokesman, Randy Teeuwen, says the market is driven by consumers.

RANDY TEEUWEN: We react by trying to produce energy for America. I mean, that's our role. And the more energy that Americans want, the more, you know, they put into their furnaces, their gas tanks, the more we respond with providing that supply.

SPENCER MICHELS: Encana says it has also reacted to environmental concerns, by building wooden platforms to protect sagebrush and by powering 90 percent of its drills with natural gas, a cleaner emission.

RANDY TEEUWEN: Our near-term goal for Jonah Field is to be at a near-zero emissions for the entire field.

SPENCER MICHELS: The company hoping to drill here near Amerine's ranch, Stanley Energy, declined our request for an interview. But the undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture, Mark Rey, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, says outfitters may need to share that land.

MARK REY, Undersecretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture: The leases are on the edge of the forest, not back up into the most pristine area of the forest, and that gives you some reason to think that maybe this is the best place to do this. The company has been very responsive about how they would minimize the environmental footprint.

Now, for people who are adamantly opposed to any development, that's not going to be good enough. But in the exercise of trying to strike a balance between competing interests -- you know, nobody gets 100 percent of what they want -- that's what multiple use is all about.

Presidential politics

SPENCER MICHELS: The battle over drilling for gas here in the Wyoming Range and in other nearby public lands has been intensified because of the upcoming national election.

Environmentalists and sportsmen charge that the Bush administration and the energy companies are trying to hurry up the leases before a new president takes office. That's a charge officials deny.

MARK REY: No, I don't think it's true, because I don't think we'll get to that point. If that was our objective, it would already be a practical impossibility.

SPENCER MICHELS: Rey says the Forest Service will recommend what to do in the Wyoming Range only after it completes an environmental impact study, and that isn't expected until after the election.

MARK REY: We'll complete this new environmental analysis, and then there will be a period for appeals and litigation. That will continue past the end of this administration.

And my successors, whoever they are, whatever party they represent, are going to have to make the final decisions in response to however those appeals and lawsuits unfold.

CHRIS WOOD, Trout Unlimited: We just want to see energy development done responsibly.

SPENCER MICHELS: As for the sportsmen, who are usually adverse to politics, several hundred of them met in Grand Teton National Park in May hoping to get the ear of presidential candidates by presenting them with policy proposals for national energy development.

Chris Wood of Trout Unlimited sees Wyoming and other Western states as key in this year's election.

CHRIS WOOD: Our belief is that the states that oil and gas development is occurring in, the Rocky Mountain West, matter right now, and they will matter in 2008.

New Mexico has always been a swing state. Colorado's going to be a very important state. Montana could be a very important state.

These are places where oil and gas development is happening at this very moment. And our belief is that sportsmen are a critical constituency to whatever party hopes to carry those states.

SPENCER MICHELS: Federal legislation to protect parts of the Wyoming Range from future drilling is expected to come to a vote this summer.