The Arctic Isn't the Only Flash Point

Where the drilling debate could get hot in the Lower 48

Along a 149-mile stretch of the Missouri River in northern Montana sits the Upper Missouri River Breaks, a national monument of majestic proportions. Its more than 300,000 acres--some filled with sagebrush and multicolored cliffs--have changed little since Lewis and Clark mapped the river's length in the early 1800s as they explored the West for President Thomas Jefferson.

But like Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the Upper Missouri Breaks is noteworthy for more than its beauty: It's a good place to drill for oil. That means it could become the next ground zero in the fight over President Bush's comprehensive energy plan.

That blueprint, scheduled to be unveiled on May 17, will ask Congress to open ANWR to oil and gas exploration. It also would relax federal and state environmental rules to make it easier to build oil refineries, pipelines, and electricity-generating plants. Federal agencies would be granted the power of eminent domain to speed the building of more power transmission lines. The government would ease rules to help utility companies upgrade and renew licenses for nuclear power plants. And consumers buying energy-efficient autos and appliances would be able to claim tax credits.

Still, the top priority of Bush and his Capitol Hill allies is to dramatically hike domestic supplies of oil and gas. And since lands under the Interior Dept.'s protection now produce 28% of the U.S. energy supply, one way Bush can decrease dependence on foreign oil is to increase exploration on federal land.

RICH POOLS. That, at least, is the fear of environmentalists who believe Bush soon will open up some national forests and monuments--especially those designated as such in the closing days of the Clinton Administration--for drilling and mining. Mark D. Pfeifle, a spokesman for Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, denies there are any current plans to drill on federal lands beyond ANWR. But, he adds, "we want to both protect lands and use them so they remain intact for generations to come."

Areas thought to contain oil, gas, and coal deposits include Colorado's White River National Forest, Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante, the Copper River Delta on the Gulf of Alaska, and Wyoming's Red Desert. In the Rocky Mountain states alone, public lands hold 137 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that is either restricted or off limits completely, according to a 1999 study by the National Petroleum Council, an Energy Dept.-designated group that included Vice-President Dick Cheney. That's enough gas to meet the nation's needs for six years. And according to the latest figures from the U.S. Geological Survey, the continental U.S. holds some 22 billion barrels of oil--more than twice the amount the agency says is available in Alaska. Says Marlan W. Downey, president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists: "These lands were established to serve all of our nation's citizens, not to provide scenic views for tourists."

So does this mean that oil rigs will soon appear among the ancient cottonwood groves of the Upper Missouri River Breaks? Not exactly. While the area has mostly escaped the notice of Democratic lawmakers gearing up to block ANWR drilling, environmental groups, including the Wilderness Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council, are hoping to change that. "We're giving this the full-court press," says Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program. "We beat the President's father when he tried to do this, and we're going to beat this President, too."

Truth be told, the proposal for drilling in ANWR, which lacks support on Capitol Hill, is probably already dead. Christine Todd Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, conceded as much in late April, although her press aide quickly issued a correction claiming that Whitman misspoke.

BRAINSTORMING. That leaves the lower 48 states, where the battle has yet to be joined. In the last year of his tenure, Clinton designated 19 sites, or some 3 million acres of land, as national monuments. The Upper Missouri Breaks, for example, was set aside on Jan. 17--three days before Clinton left office. Now, Interior's Norton has begun the process of writing land-use management plans for each new monument. Norton is inviting numerous parties--not just environmental groups--to help develop the plans, which conceivably could include drilling. "We want to listen to the ideas and concerns of everyone, whether it's the local Sierra Club or the local Chamber of Commerce," says Pfeifle.

That's ringing alarm bells among enviros, who are particularly worried about Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, a 1 million-acre expanse of deep canyons adjacent to the most famous federal land of all: Grand Canyon National Park.

Most voters in Rocky Mountain states strongly support the economic development that drilling would bring to faltering local economies. Says Representative Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.), a longtime friend of Cheney who is advising the White House energy task force: "Natural gas from my state, be it in the Green River Basin or the Powder River Basin, is just waiting to be drilled and sent to market."

But even if Democrats and their green allies are able to block drilling in Clinton-designated monuments, they're likely to have a tougher time stopping exploration on the millions of acres of federally managed lands already available to energy companies. Since the '70s, industry groups claim, the feds and the states have used reams of regulations to tie up much of the land.

"The greatest impediment to securing our nation's natural-gas resources for energy generation is our own federal government," says Robert W. Fisher, an executive at Ballard Petroleum, a Billings (Mont.) independent explorer, and president of the Montana Petroleum Assn. The Administration appears ready to agree. Officials already are moving to streamline the permit process and to push more regulations to the state level.

If the White House gets its way, Bush will wind up being "the most anti-environmental President in modern times," says Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, a nonprofit conservation group. "This is an Administration that has incredible ties to the oil and gas industry--they've been salivating over the prospect of getting into our public lands for some time." But with Bush's plan winning kudos from the oil patch, GOP lawmakers, and consumers frustrated by the big bite that energy prices are taking out of their budgets, Schlickeisen and his friends have a steep hill to hike.

By Laura Cohn in Washington

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