Nearly two-thirds of all Coloradans would prefer to protect pristine national forest land rather than increase oil and gas production in those areas, according to a new poll conducted for the Pew Environment Group.
In a teleconference with reporters Tuesday, the nonprofit public-policy research organization announced the findings of a phone survey conducted Aug. 18-24 by Denver-based RBI Strategy & Research. It comes right before a federal advisory committee is expected to review Colorado’s controversial roadless rule proposal in Utah Thursday.
That blueprint for managing the state’s approximately 4.4 million acres of essentially pristine public land is loaded with loopholes that would allow more than 100 new oil and gas leases, “long-term temporary” roads to service those leases, and increased logging and ski-area expansion, according to critics.
The Pew poll, which surveyed 700 Colorado residents — 250 of them on the state’s Western Slope, which is dominated by national forest land — found that fully 70 percent of respondents felt that the state’s high number of unused oil and gas leases was reason enough not to grant the industry additional ones on largely untrammeled public lands. And 56 percent said drilling in such places wouldn’t lower gas prices anyway.
“The results indicate that the majority of Coloradans are skeptical about a new push to open up some of their best backcountry to new drilling,” said Jane Danowitz, U.S. public lands program director at Pew Environment Group. “They want a time-out until they can fully assess what increased drilling could mean to their way of life.”
On Thursday, the Roadless Area Conservation National Advisory Committee will review the Colorado roadless rule, which stemmed from a Bush administration rollback of the Clinton roadless rule implemented briefly in 2001. The more-restrictive Clinton rule has been the subject of legal wrangling for nearly eight years, while a Bush rule change allowing states to petition the federal government for their own set of roadless rules took precedence.
Only Colorado and Idaho went the petition route, and Idaho recently firmed up its roadless rule, essentially affording 95 percent of the state’s federal lands the same level of roadless protection granted under the Clinton rule. Environmentalists have charged Colorado’s rule grants far more exceptions to extractive industries than the Idaho rule.
The Pew poll also found that about 70 percent of Coloradans are worried by the impacts increased energy development could have on wildlife habitat, water and air quality, and the health of the state’s residents.
RBI Strategy & Research president Rick Ridder said a majority of respondents think the state and Gov. Bill Ritter should push for delay in implementing Colorado’s proposed roadless rule until a new administration is in the White House.
“Voters are not convinced that now is the right time to be move forward, and they don’t want to see expedited rulemaking in order to meet an artificial deadline of Jan. 1,” Ridder said. “It’s clear that the majority of Colorado voters believe that oil and gas companies should use the leases they already have before getting ahold of new ones located in pristine areas.”
The so-called “gap leases” processed by the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service since the Clinton rule was tossed out were necessary, according to Forest Service officials who say they were operating under an executive order. The leases were revealed in a Pew report this summer.
“While the 2001 rule was not in effect — even though it was out there, it wasn’t really in effect — we were managing our lands under existing forest plans and existing oil and gas leasing decisions, and we had a large backlog of oil and gas leasing requests and were under an executive order to process leases and permits because of the energy situation,” Melody Holm, a regional Forest Service program manager for energy/leasable minerals, said at an open house last month.
Forest Service officials say that all open-house-style meetings on the topic have been concluded but that written comments will be accepted until Oct. 23. Send a comment by e-mail to COcomments@fsroadless.org; by fax to (916) 456–6724, or by snail mail to Roadless Area Conservation — Colorado, P.O. Box 162909, Sacramento, CA 95816–2909.