Taking the “Public” Out of Public Lands

Land use – and conservation – is a big issue in the Rocky Mountain region, and a provision in the Bush energy bill is touching a raw nerve in the region. The Casper Star Tribune reports that legislative language “which slipped largely under the radar during the recent energy bill debate” may “undermine public involvement on public lands if it is not changed.” Specifically, a section of the 1,000-plus-page energy bill would limit required environmental reviews and solicitation of public comment under the existing National Environmental Policy Act.

In practice, that means oil companies may be able to evade review when moving onto potential drilling sites, and “wastewater discharge from things such as coal-bed methane drilling would not be subject” to current reviews. One local expert said the bill, if passed by the Senate, “would have devastating effects on ranchers and farmers in the Powder River Basin.”

Much of this stems from the so-called “Peterson amendment” — named for Congressman John Petersen (R-PA), who introduced the language that seeks “to exclude the public from the decision-making process.” Big surprise – oil and gas interests are among Petersen’s top campaign contributors.

It’s just another example of how conservatives’ close ties to corporations are increasingly putting them at odds with their base constituencies in rural America. And it’s not just limited to Wyoming. In Colorado, for instance, a controversy is brewing over the death of a bill to force oil and gas companies to pay more for harming land, and over a proposal to allow drilling on the sacred Rocky Mountain front.