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Loss and Loathing on the Cheney Trail 

The environmental destruction wrought by the vice president’s secret energy plan

Thursday, Sep 2 2004
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Illustration by Brian Wilcox

A neighbor had warned Lisa Bracken of a strange phenomenon on the trail up to western Colorado’s towering Mamm Mountain. On an April morning, she set off from her home in the small town of Silt, in the shadow of Mamm, to see it for herself. She hiked for about an hour through the budding trees and brush. After climbing several hundred feet, Bracken reached Divide Creek, and grew alarmed at what she saw.

Cold water, but bubbling like a boiling pot. Bubbles rose and popped everywhere. To test a theory that gas from a nearby well caused the bubbles, Bracken and her father, who had hiked with her that day, lit a match and found that a stream of bubbles burned. After taking photos, she headed home worrying about her family’s health and the future of the water supply for the residents and farm animals along the creek.

When she got home, Bracken called state authorities to report the bubbles in the creek, which flows to the Colorado River. Within days, energy giant EnCana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. began trucking 5-gallon water jugs to the Brackens and 20 neighboring families. Monitoring showed that the seeping gas apparently had contaminated the water with unhealthful levels of benzene and other toxic chemicals that typically occur in gas wells. After investigating, the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission cited EnCana for allegedly polluting the creek. EnCana has paid a $375,000 fine without admitting guilt.

Authorities assure Bracken and her neighbors that the creek is again safe because EnCana has repaired the well and the toxic chemicals have dissipated, but the residents continue to fear for their health and worry that their properties have become worthless.

The people of Silt are among a growing legion of farmers, ranchers, American Indians, and businesspeople — Republican, Democrat and Independent alike — who are bearing the brunt of booming natural-gas development in the Rocky Mountains under Vice President Dick Cheney’s secretly developed 2001 National Energy Policy.

The public will never know for sure what went through Cheney’s mind and who influenced the policy; the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this summer that he had a right to keep the information secret. Environmental groups fought the secrecy all the way to the Supreme Court in a vain attempt to reveal what they believed to be undue influence over the nation’s energy and environmental policies by energy companies, large and small. They suspected that the administration had unfairly stacked the national energy policy in favor of the energy industry at the expense of the general public.

Three years after the policy was introduced, it is clear that Cheney — former chief of the energy-services company Halliburton — has done just that. His policy has allowed his energy-industry cronies and campaign contributors to drill on the cheap in the absence of environmental standards that commonly apply to most any other industry in America, such as a duty to control air pollution with the best available technology.

Major campaign contributors have been beneficiaries of the secretly developed policy and are among the biggest drillers for natural gas in Colorado and Wyoming. They include Secretary of Commerce Don Evans’ former employer Tom Brown Inc., which was recently bought by EnCana, and George and John Yates, who run Yates Petroleum, and R.D. Cash, a former chairman of Questar Corp. who still remains on its board. Household-name companies such as BP and Marathon Oil also are busy drilling under eased environmental requirements while they reap record profits under the Cheney blueprint to open every gas-bearing area in the Rocky Mountains to drilling while he holds office. Halliburton is another big winner as it carves up the new business created by drilling tens of thousands of new wells with just a few major competitors.

Energy companies contend they are merely meeting the nation’s growing demand for energy. “This is about providing what is being required by the consumer,” said Hugh Depland, general manager of public affairs for BP America Exploration. He rejected the notion that BP and other energy companies have exchanged campaign contributions for relaxed environmental standards under the National Energy Policy. “The industry is a lot greener than it’s been for a long time.” Said Don Larson, director of public affairs for BP America’s Rocky Mountain operations: “I don’t see it being politically driven. It’s stricter than ever now.” Other energy industry executives, including Allan Urlis, chief spokesperson for Mid American Energy Holdings, said that more domestic drilling is needed to reduce reliance on foreign sources of energy.

Meanwhile, there are many losers in the growing swath of denuded land, contaminated soil, polluted water and air pollution along a path — call it the Cheney Trail — that runs up the Rocky Mountains from New Mexico all the way to Canada. However, that should come as no surprise, because that is exactly what Cheney had planned, even before taking office in 2000.

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