Opinion

THE PODIUM | Activists mislead the public about oil and gas development near Dunes

Author: Aaron M. Johnson - July 18, 2018 - Updated: July 17, 2018

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Aaron M. Johnson

How far does a national park extend past its boundary line? In the case of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, we’re told the boundary stretches past the gate, over a mountain range, and across a valley on the other side. That’s according to anti-fossil fuel activists working to stop oil and natural gas leasing east of the park and on the other side of the mountains on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management for multiple uses.

Groups like the Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians are looking at the Sand Dunes as the next stop in a much larger campaign to stop oil and natural gas development. In Colorado, they have unsuccessfully attempted to shut down development along the Front Range and the Western Slope by advocating for bans and moratoriums that were overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court. They see Huerfano County where the leases are located as a new community full of political opportunity.

Across the West, activists are using the public’s sentiments around national parks and monuments to campaign against responsible oil and natural gas development. Although new development is not allowed within national parks and monuments, they falsely claim companies are threatening Chaco Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, Canyonlands, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. The truth is the federal government owns valuable energy resources that lie several miles outside of these protected areas and under lands Congress designated for productive uses.

Despite the fact that none of the resources BLM plans to lease in Huerfano County are within the national park or nearby wilderness area, Keep-It-in-the-Ground groups from San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are spreading misinformation about oil and natural gas production on public lands. Their growing publicity campaign includes flying reporters from across the country on chartered flights over the national park and recruiting community organizers.

What they won’t say is hiking from the park’s eastern boundary, you would have to cross several miles, climb over the Sangre De Cristo Mountains with their 14,000-foot peaks, and descend onto the plain below to reach the area planned for development.

Recently, the Huerfano County Commission recommended BLM delay the upcoming lease sale.
The commissioners called for several years of environmental analysis even though oil and natural gas development is a well-established process that would bring economic benefits to Huerfano County. Without seeking a better understanding of the oil and natural gas industry, the commissioners regrettably missed key facts. For instance, they overlooked BLM’s multiple regulations and restrictions that ensure the land and environment are protected.

They also took a stricter position than the Environmental Protection Agency. Following an environmental assessment of the area, the regional administrator said EPA’s recommendations to BLM could be resolved quickly and should not hold up the lease sale.

Fortunately other local leaders recognize the potential benefits of oil and natural gas development in the valley. State Sen. Larry Crowder supports BLM’s plan, saying: “Fracking is extremely safe, the technology has proven safe and the economic development for that region would be tremendous.”

In the past week, the BLM announced it would delay the lease sale scheduled for early September after the Navajo Nation requested a consultation meeting. While the Navajo reservation is far away in the Four Corners region, the tribe considers the area to be part of their ancestral lands and owns property nearby.

It’s disappointing BLM deferred the leases because the Sand Dunes could benefit from oil and natural gas leasing on BLM land. Momentum is building in Congress to use revenues from energy development on public lands to reduce the National Park Service’s $11.6 billion maintenance backlog. The National Parks Restoration Act has bipartisan support, a rarity in Washington, D.C., including the support of Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner and New Mexico Democrat Sen. Martin Heinrich.

The Sand Dunes currently has $10.4 million in outstanding maintenance requirements. Under the bill, promoted by Secretary Ryan Zinke, revenues from oil and natural gas leases could help address financial needs that include $4 million for roads, $1.2 million for building upkeep, $3 million for campgrounds trails and water/wastewater systems.

The sand dunes, like other national parks, is a treasure set aside for people to enjoy for generations. Oil and natural gas development is already disallowed within the park, and the industry has no desire to disturb the park. We know the only thing that beats climbing the hot, sandy peaks on a visit with family is cooling your feet in Medano Creek.

Aaron M. Johnson

Aaron M. Johnson

Aaron Johnson is the vice president of public affairs at Western Energy Alliance, a nonprofit trade association that represents more than 300 companies engaged in all aspects of environmentally responsible exploration and production of oil and natural gas in the West.