It’s been an eventful week for those of us seeking a better balance between drilling and conservation on America’s public lands.
An RV tour from Montana to New Mexico, organized by the Equal Ground coalition, wrapped up last weekend in Las Cruces. Along its 1,650 mile journey, we heard stories from business owners, sportsmen, veterans, outdoor enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and energy workers about the importance of protected public lands to the West’s economy and unmatched quality of life. They want Washington to get moving to protect open spaces for recreation and to right the balance between conservation and drilling.
With Westerners making their voices heard on behalf of their public lands, an oil and gas industry group, called the Western Energy Alliance (WEA), responded with paid advertising, which they are calling the ‘Common Ground’ campaign. Although the new Common Ground campaign looked at first glance like a clumsy response to the Equal Ground effort, it also heightened our optimism that the oil and gas industry was beginning to hear the concerns of Westerners. Until now the industry has brushed off worries about the location and nature of industrial drilling, but, after a series of high-profile controversies (including a proposal last week to drill near the Book Cliffs in Utah that provoked the strong opposition of Utah Governor Gary Herbert and sportsmen groups) it seems to be hustling back on track.
To start a dialogue, the Center for Western Priorities (CWP) joined several groups in extending an olive branch to WEA with a letter asking Common Ground to join us in backing two common ground policies supported by Westerners:
1) Avoid drilling in and around national parks; near schools, houses, and local communities; and in areas that supply drinking water to local communities.
2) Prioritize drilling in areas of public lands identified to contain high resource potential and low conflict.
We reasoned that if WEA was serious about heeding the concerns of Westerners, it would agree, at least in principle, to these simple means of striking a balance on Western lands. Common Ground, for its part, rejected the overture without a second thought, only saying we sure do appreciate them bringing attention to our ‘Common Ground’ campaign.” But they didn’t react to the specifics of the proposal, so perhaps they’re willing to consider further.
The Equal Ground coalition and CWP are clear about what balance on public lands looks like. We recognize the important role energy development plays in the West. And we believe there is a middle fork for public lands, in which drilling can move forward alongside expanded protections on public lands. That is why we need to see smart planning that protects deserving lands, ensures drilling happens in the right places, and provides oil companies and conservationists more certainty about where drilling should be prioritized. The full list of Equal Ground policies are laid out in the Blueprint for Balance.
If industry wants to show that it too respects balance on our Western lands, we hope it goes beyond running a PR campaign and begins offering substantive recommendations to achieve balance.