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Rocky Mountain Front
Science and Health:
Wilderness at Risk
More on This Story:
The Fight to Save the Front

Groups of conservationists have been struggling to protect the Rocky Mountain Front from oil and gas development for over two decades, a fight that is ongoing as industry continues to speculate about the area. One such alliance, the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front warns of the potential negative landscape effects of oil and gas development:

  • Air Quality: Dust and pollution from construction, vehicles, generators and compressors would diminish views and air quality. Carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide could be released during flaring.
  • Water Quality: Sedimentation and pollution from construction activity and road and pad runoff could degrade surface waters, while ground water could be tainted by accidental discharge of drilling fluids and hazardous waste.
  • Wildlife: Habitat fragmentation from new roads and well pads, as well as disruption from truck traffic and construction activity will be especially hard on big game species, such as bighorn sheep, elk, moose and mountain goats, potentially leading to a decrease in their numbers. If it were to occur, full-field development would persist for 25-40 years, and the BLM admits that, "the wildlife values present before field development may not be totally restored, as negative impact would be cumulative over the life of the field."

Over the past several decades, the oil and gas industry has acquired numerous leases in the area. Since 1900, over 100 oil and gas wells have been drilled along Montana's Front, most of which, according to the Coalition, lacked recoverable reserves.

In 1997, Lewis and Clark National Forest supervisor Gloria Flora issued a ban on any new oil and gas leases on 356,000 national forest acres in the Front, closing this area from development for the next 15 years. Several industry trade groups sued in federal court to challenge this decision but were unsuccessful. Despite this ban on new leases, existing leases were not affected, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has been evaluating new drilling proposals on such existing leases. If commercially recoverable reserves are found, proposed oil and gas activity on the Front could have a major impact on the land.

Beyond emphasizing the unique natural qualities of the Front, conservationists point to recent research suggesting that the oil and gas potential of the Front is limited. In an analysis of "economically recoverable" gas and oil — defined as "technically recoverable" gas that is estimated to be profitable to extract — in the Rocky Mountain Front using U.S. Geological Survey data, the Wilderness Society highlighted three key findings:

  • The Blackleaf area now being studied for drilling in the BLM's Blackleaf EIS contains less than a day's worth of natural gas and 15 minutes of oil for the nation.
  • The Badger Two Medicine area contains less than two days of natural gas and five seconds of oil.
  • The entire Montana Front (federal lands) contains less than a week of natural gas and 20 minutes of oil.

Vehicles on the Front

At this time, almost the entire Front is "inventoried roadless area" protected from road construction under the Roadless Rule. But a revised Travel Plan has been proposed, which would open two-thirds of the Front to some form of motorized use (dirt bikes, ATVs, jeeps and snowmobiles). This proposal would classify 75 traditional trails, covering 281 miles, as "motorized." The public comment period scheduled to end on November 15, 2004, has yielded over 2.5 million comments, the vast majority of which oppose development of roadless areas. Read more on the "Roadless Rule."

Access to the West

Vice President Dick Cheney recently made a statement speaking directly to drilling the American West:

What we've fallen into the habit of doing is we continue to increase our consumption of energy, specifically oil and gas, but we aren't producing here at home. We've taken large chunks of the country and put it off limits to any kind of exploration or development…large parts of the Rocky Mountain West are off limits.
The sentiment has been heard from many throughout the Bush administration, including the President himself, but a new study from the Environmental Working Group contradicts these claims. The investigation of federal land use and energy production records shows that "the oil and gas industry has been given access to an immense area of western land, and that this nearly unfettered opportunity to drill in 12 western states has done nothing to reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil."

Executive Orders

The efforts of the oil and gas industry are not limited to the Rocky Mountain Front. In "Wilderness at Risk," NOW's David Brancaccio reports on executive orders issued by President Bush echoing language first used in energy industry documents, executive orders that concern the entire American West. View some of these documents side by side:

  • In March of 2001, the American Petroleum Institute (API) submitted a proposed draft executive order to the Energy Department. Two months later, the White House issued Executive Order 13211, which addressed regulation of energy supply and distribution and contained language similar to that found in the API memo.

  • Also in March of 2001, officials at the American Gas Association (AGA) sent a proposed energy bill to the Energy Department, which included a provision to establish a task force to "streamline regulation of exploration and production on federal lands." In May, Executive Order 13212 called for the creation of an energy task force to "expedite energy-related projects."

  • "What the Documents Reveal"
    Documents obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act are presented here as a slide show. This represents a small sample of the roughly 13,500 pages released to the NRDC in 2002, after a federal judge ordered the U.S. Department of Energy to disclose the previously secret documents.
To find out more about the Cheney Energy Task Force documents and conduct your own search, visit the NRDC's collection of task force records.

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