Elks and elephants

Oil companies can usually rely on a lawmaker from an oil-producing state to endorse their legislative agenda, but that support is far from unconditional.

Oil companies can usually rely on a lawmaker from an oil-producing state to endorse their legislative agenda, but that support is far from unconditional.

That lesson was driven home recently when the former chairman of the House Committee on Resources, Don Young (R-Alas.), on behalf of the 250-member Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus, wrote a letter protesting Mar. 7 testimony two trade groups gave to his old committee about problems independents face developing public land.

Young disagreed with Neal Stanley, senior vice president of Forest Oil Corp., who spoke on behalf of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States and the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

Hunters and drillers

Stanley noted that, in his own experience, he had not seen animals bothered by drilling activity, and he could not understand why land managers restrict exploration.

"And for what purpose, or benefit, do land managers restrict drilling? So that the herd can increase in size only to be hunted next fall. If there is any real trade-off between closing an area or opening it to development, the tradeoff seems to be between energy development and hunting. And so we must decide, should American consumers be paying a higher price for energy to subsidize elk hunters?"

Young, along with six colleagues spanning the political spectrum, complained the statement represented the same kind of rigid thinking industry accuses environmental groups of having.

"It is our understanding that the vast majority of the oil and gas industry seeks to minimize the footprint of their developments, especially the temporary impacts to wildlife that inhabit the area," seven caucus members wrote Stanley Apr. 3.

"...Of all the hindrances to development, it is disappointing that Mr. Stanley chose to single out the nation's 65 million sportsmen. In fact, the idea that sportsmen don't pay their own way is incorrect. Since 1937, sportsmen have paid an excise tax on the products we use. This fund has been used to ensure that wildlife remain in abundance - to the benefit of all Americans...

"We appreciate the United States' current energy situation and the need for domestic development. However, a balance between development and the environment is critical, and we hope this balance is something our domestic energy producers are interested in achieving."

A balancing act

A month later, at another public land hearing before the same committee, IPAA sought to clarify their earlier statement, saying many independent producers are also avid sportsmen. And they understand that "as oil and gas men, we conduct our activities in a way that supports wildlife," testified Mark Murphy, president of Strata Production Co. of Roswell, NM, on behalf of IPAA Apr. 23. "However, we need to strike a balance between development and the environment," he noted, with one activity not taking precedence over the other. "They can and do, coexist," Murphy said. He later added: "We are not aware of any operator who believes that oil and gas exploration should interfere with a critical range of species."

That's a position Young himself espoused when he chaired the committee. But how to balance development and conservation of oil-rich federal lands is a perennial hot potato that leaves even the most supportive politician thin-skinned, especially these days.

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