In Colorado, Drilling Some Holes in the Republican Base

Backlash from voters who object to accelerated oil and gas drilling on private land on Colorado's western slope is fueling Democratic gains.
Backlash from voters who object to accelerated oil and gas drilling on private land on Colorado's western slope is fueling Democratic gains. (By Karl Vick -- The Washington Post)
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 16, 2007

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. -- The Bush administration's aggressive drive to promote oil and gas drilling on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains has sparked growing anger here among traditional Republican constituents who say that the stepped-up push for energy development is sullying some of the country's most majestic landscape.

The emerging backlash from ranchers and sportsmen, which is occurring despite an economic boom driven by drilling, is threatening GOP primacy in at least one corner of what has been a solidly Republican West. Long the most reliably conservative expanse of a state that has gone red in six of the past seven presidential contests, Colorado's western third shows evidence of the "purpling" that has made Colorado look increasingly like a swing state.

Support from the western slope was seen as pivotal in the elections of Democrats Bill Ritter as governor last year and Sen. Ken Salazar in 2004, the same year Salazar's older brother, Rep. John Salazar, was elected to Congress from a western Colorado district that had given 66 percent of its vote to the Republican candidate four years earlier. All three Democrats found support in GOP enclaves while calling for "balance" in energy extraction.

"I can only speak for myself and I'm a registered Republican, but last year I voted a straight Democratic ticket. First time in my life," said Bob Elderkin, 68, who heads the town of Rifle's chapter of the Colorado Mule Deer Association, a hunting group that has made common cause with environmentalists against drilling. "The Republicans have kind of lost touch with reality."

At the behest of the White House, which made accelerated oil and gas leasing the top priority of the Bureau of Land Management, the gas industry has in the past five years transformed huge tracts of an iconic Western landscape into something resembling industrial zones. As Coloradoans struggle to adjust to the changes -- a steady flow of heavy rigs on back roads, powerful odors from evaporation ponds and a small army of roughnecks gobbling methamphetamine to work 12-hour shifts -- disquiet grows over federal plans to open the spigot wider yet.

The state has 32,000 active gas and oil wells, and plans call for at least 40,000 more in the next decade. A new Wilderness Society forecast predicts 125,000 new wells across the region.

"They are creating problems by the magnitude," said Joan Savage, who welcomed the 146 gas wells on her family's 6,000-acre ranch but shakes her head at federal plans to drill atop the majestic Roan Plateau, which towers over it.

"They just want the money," Savage said. " 'Show me the money.' ''

The money is good. High school graduates can slide into jobs paying $70,000 a year. In Mesa County, on the Utah border, welfare rolls and unemployment are at record lows. "By and large, I think the community here is really enjoying this prosperous economy," said Steven Acquafresca (R), a county commissioner in Grand Junction.

Yet concern about the downside of drilling has helped define the terms of political debate even in deep-red Wyoming, where Sen. John Barrasso, the Republican appointed to the seat of the late Craig Thomas, this summer suggested buying back leases from gas companies to protect the range.

In Colorado, the backlash has emboldened officeholders who are accustomed to walking a tightrope between the state's conservative rangeland and suburbs and its heavily Democratic ski and union enclaves. Ken Salazar placed a hold on the appointment of a new Bureau of Land Management head to pressure the Interior Department to delay drilling atop the Roan, framed by Savage's office window.

Ritter's campaign improved the Democratic return in five western slope counties by 14 to 46 percentage points over the past cycle. In his standard stump speech, he noted complaints about air quality in majestic Glenwood Canyon. He carried Garfield County, which houses the canyon, with 57 percent of the vote, compared with 33 percent for the previous Democratic candidate for governor.

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