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For a Week's Worth of Gas

The Bush energy plan has opened some of the West's last best places to oil and gas drilling. The wildlife of Wyoming's Upper Green River Valley will never be the same.

On May 18, 2001, a day after unveiling an "energy plan" hatched in secret with the energy industry, President Bush signed Executive Order 13212. Following a nearly identical proposal offered by the American Gas Association, he directed federal agencies to "expedite their review of permits or take other actions as necessary to accelerate the completion of [energy-related] projects." The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) hopped to it, fast-tracking gas-drilling permits across the Rocky Mountain West and developing an official policy to overcome "impediments" to energy development.

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The benefits in terms of increased gas production have been modest. The costs in wildlife, fish, livestock, air quality, water quality, and the last best wildland south of Alaska have been horrendous. Yet perhaps because the administration has backed away from its dream of turning the gas and oil industry loose in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, environmentalists haven't made a lot of noise -- until recently.

The land being sacrificed -- in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, and Utah -- is just as beautiful as any in Alaska, and no less valuable to wildlife. Take the 7-million-acre Upper Green River Valley in western Wyoming. The mountains may not be quite so stark as those of the Alaska range, but they are high and jagged, with permanent snowfields and glaciers. Forested slopes of lodgepole pine and subalpine fir give way to aspen-clad foothills and rolling sagebrush steppes that have the spongy look of muskeg, but two shades lighter.

I saw it for the first time in mid-May. Even at 9 a.m. the snow-covered Wind River Mountains were still in shadow. To the north rose the Gros Ventres and Hobacks, to the west the Wyoming range. As in Alaska, this is the home of wolves, grizzlies, moose, and mountain sheep (in this case bighorns). The Upper Green River Valley sustains North America's largest sage grouse population and some of the last pure strains of Colorado River cutthroat trout; and it provides critical winter range for elk and mule deer. There is no more spectacular or productive wildlife habitat in America. It's a national treasure as precious as Yellowstone National Park, whose ecosystem it is part of.

Above the greening cottonwoods that shaded the New Fork and Green rivers -- headwaters of the Colorado -- the wings of a dozen white pelicans flashed as they turned into the sun, and at that instant the flared tail of an adult bald eagle, previously invisible, flashed under them. Magpies, streaming tails fluttering in the wind, patrolled the roadsides. Horned larks buzzed up around me; and ravens, showing only as ink dots on an azure sky, croaked so loudly I first looked for them on telephone poles. Bands of pronghorns (also known, incorrectly, as "antelopes") trotted south on their spring migration toward the Red Desert, some from as far away as Grand Teton National Park. It was a scene to gladden the heart of any person who loves wild things and wild places.

Retired Air Force pilot Jim McLellan showed me more of the valley's vastness and beauty from his Cessna 172. From New Fork Lake, we followed a rugged canyon cut by a ribbon of meltwater hurrying down from the icebound Continental Divide toward the Sea of Cortez. With frozen peaks of the Wind River Range level with our wingtips, we could make out the Grand Tetons through distant mist. We banked to the southeast toward Gannett Peak, the highest point in Wyoming, then dipped down over the Pinedale Anticline, a fragile mesa where winds blast snow off the grass and sage that sustain deer, moose, and elk through winter. Migrating pronghorns looked like suede, fleece-lined slippers kicked onto a green rug.

An "anticline" is a buckling up of strata. In this case, natural gas, rising to the highest point, got trapped at the apex. But the gas here is contained in tight sand formations, which makes extraction problematic, so until three years ago the anticline was as untouched as the rest of the valley, which is also rich in gas and oil. Then Halliburton Company applied "fracing" technology, by which water and fluids that may contain toxic chemicals are injected into wells at tremendous pressure so that they fracture formations. When the liquids, which pick up additional toxins such as benzene, are pumped out again, sand remains, propping open the cracks and freeing up gas. According to the Los Angeles Times, information on fracing and its dangers to public health was deleted from the White House National Energy Policy. At the same time, the EPA was drafting a report that said fracing could poison aquifers when used in coal-bed methane wells. The EPA later revised that report, citing only "feedback" from industry, to state that fracing didn't contaminate groundwater. In last year's energy bill, which stalled on the Senate floor, fracing fluids were exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act. The administration's energy policy and the bill were crafted largely by Vice President Dick Cheney, who used to run Halliburton and who reported taking a bonus from the company in 2001 of $1,451,398 and deferred payments of $205,298 and $162,392 in 2001 and 2002, respectively. (Figures for 2003 were not available.) Such is fast-track, impediment-free gas leasing in action.

On the 200,000-acre Pinedale Anticline there are already 166 gas and oil well pads -- four-to eight-acre, rectangular ulcers connected with a tangle of raw-dirt roads. In this parched landscape pads and roads heal slowly or not at all, and they are conduits for Russian thistle and other invasive aliens that replace native forage needed by wildlife. BLM's Pinedale field office is permitting 210 more wells. Currently there are about 2,500 in the entire 1.2-million-acre Pinedale Resource Area, and 7,000 to 10,000 new ones are planned.

The 30,000-acre Jonah Field, 30 miles south of the anticline, looks even worse. There are 601 wells, and in the eastern half they're spaced 40 acres apart. When new ones go in, spacing is expected to decrease to 10 acres. Scum-encrusted water, contaminated with fracing fluids and hydrocarbons, festers in plastic-lined ponds. Three orange ribbons, stretching across each pond, are supposed to discourage waterfowl from landing. A compressor station the size of a small factory moves gas through a pipeline that wanders west under a dirt swath 15 times wider than the roads.

There are places in the valley where natural features create migration "bottlenecks" for wildlife, and they're being pinched tighter by human development. If BLM allows gas development to close them -- or even if it doesn't and allows drilling at the current pace -- most of the valley's wildlife will be lost. Nothing is more imperiled than pronghorns. Grand Teton National Park's population, for example, is thought to have declined 60 percent in the last decade.

Dr. Joel Berger, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, is studying how pronghorns move through the valley. "Americans should appreciate this spectacular migration," he told me, noting that it's the second longest in the Western Hemisphere after the caribou's in Alaska and Canada. "If the corridors aren't protected and development continues at the current pace, extinction in the park will be ensured. Is it acceptable to let a species go extinct in a national park? I think not."

The pronghorn is more closely allied to deer than old-world antelopes. It is uniquely American, existing on no other continent, and it is the only wild ungulate that evolved in what is now the United States. All others (save the peccary, which came up from the south) crossed from Eurasia on the Bering land bridge. Among the planet's land mammals only the cheetah is faster; and it is the cheetah -- once native to North America -- that appears to have given the pronghorn its swiftness by chasing it. Like all animals built for speed, pronghorns lack substantial fat reserves and therefore can least tolerate winter stress from the noise and activity of seismic testing, fracing, trucks, and drilling rigs.

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