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.
Not all of the swing toward the Democrats is the result of anger over the Bush administration's stance on drilling. Other factors, such as candidate appeal and the Iraq war, weigh heavily. But politicians on the western slope say drilling is a major local issue.
"We're seeing a lot more liberal voting in this area, and I think a lot of it has to do with energy development," said Tr?si Houpt, a Garfield County commissioner who was reelected last year.
"I had 61 percent of the vote. I'm a Democrat. People want people in office who are willing to fight to protect their health, their property values and the lifestyle they moved to Colorado to enjoy."
Residents in deeply Republican Mesa County say the gas is needed, especially with output from offshore reserves falling. But there is also apprehension about the approach of the rigs that transformed Garfield. The Bureau of Land Management recently authorized gas drilling -- a process that uses hydraulic pressures to fracture underground formations -- in the area that supplies Grand Junction with its drinking water.
"You do not drill on your freaking watershed!" said Frank Lamm, 62, who squared off against energy companies after sulfurous odors from the nearby Black Mountain oil field fluids disposal site began drifting into his trailer home. Evenings now find him watching TV from behind a dust mask, his front door sealed with duct tape. Rainwater from his roof runs clear into plastic buckets, then turns a disquieting red.
Lamm, a registered Republican who voted for President Bush, found himself the spokesman for Citizens for Responsible Energy Development. Group discussions stick to plotting against the energy companies that the attending liberals and conservatives have united against.
"We didn't dare talk about anything else, because we'd argue about anything else," Lamm said.
The same unified front prompted the state legislature this year to change Colorado's traditionally pro-industry oil and gas commission along new lines championed by a coalition of environmentalists, hunters and ranchers.
"Part of what we're seeing on the western slope is the breakup of the old Sagebrush Rebellion of the Reagan years," said Bill Grant, president of the Western Colorado Congress, an alliance of citizen groups. "People who were conservative, as they begin to be impacted by drilling, they're moving into an environmental posture."
Driving the shift are the stark realities of drilling, often aggravated by a haste that residents say is fueled by the approaching expiration of Bush's term.
"One day we counted 32 semis bumper-to-bumper coming by our house," said Carol Bell, 59, whose hilltop home outside Silt commands views in every direction. "It's drilling everywhere I look."
Like most Colorado property owners, Bell and her husband control only "surface rights." They had scant leverage with the firm that drilled four wells behind their house, frightening off the 300 elk who wintered there and accidentally spraying paraffin over five acres of hay. A retired pharmaceutical chemist, Bell said she worries about "the stuff you can't smell, you can't see."
"It seems like it's changed almost everything," she said. "It's not the same place. In fact, we're moving. There are people coming to see the place Saturday."
Aesthetics drove much of Colorado's striking growth over the past generation. No other Western state with significant gas reserves has so many people living in the countryside, where real estate agents refer to a property's "view shed." In portions of the Piceance Basin, which stretches to the Utah border, gas firms have laid out plans to drill at intervals of just 10 acres, with a separate road leading to each well.
Already, gas wells along Interstate 70 have altered the Colorado experience for motorists, especially after dark, when glare from distant derricks illuminates the landscape.
"When this is 30 or 40 years along, this is not going to be a scenic area. It's not going to be a place I'd pay to bring my family," said Elderkin, of the hunting lobby. "The magnitude of the area that's going to be disturbed, it's going to change things a bunch."