West faces energy showdown - Study urges region to take part in talks on power resources

By Berny Morson, Rocky Mountain News
July 12, 2003

BOULDER - Westerners should take a greater interest in energy issues because their landscape will be torn up if consumption patterns don't change, a University of Colorado think tank recommends.

"For people in the eastern United States, it can be so much of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind situation," said history professor Patricia Nelson Limerick, chairwoman of CU's Center of the American West.

But Westerners will have to live with decisions to drill for oil or gas, or to dig for coal, she said.

Limerick is lead author of the center's latest report, "What Every Westerner Should Know About Energy."

The report warns that Americans' demand for energy is on a collision course with the desire to preserve the Western landscape.

Controversy has developed over the aesthetics of large numbers of oil and gas wells, as well as coal strip mines. There also have been incidents in southwest Colorado in which oil or gas drilling has contaminated groundwater, raising health concerns.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, much of the West was considered desert - and fair game for energy development. Today, desert is considered beautiful and part of a larger ecology.

"There is someone who loves every little tract in the West," Limerick said.

In some cases, the same people who fight energy development are wasting energy. She cites environmentally sensitive Boulder residents who drive SUVs, which she calls "a very hilarious state of affairs."

The report rejects alarmist predictions that the nation will run out of energy soon. But it also rejects the view of some economists that endlessly innovative market forces assure a perpetual energy supply at reasonable prices.

Any dialogue on energy must include energy companies, the report says.

"Overheated anti-corporate rhetoric obscures our own responsibility for our energy-indulged ways," the report says. Energy executives, some of whom participated in a conference that preceded the report, are "human beings, impossible to demonize."

At a news conference this week to unveil the report, Peter Dea, president of Denver-based Western Gas Resources Inc., said environmentalists will have to think about how America can meet its energy needs as well as how to curtail development.

Dea, who reviewed the report, distinguished between genuine environmentalists and people he termed "a community of obstructionists out there" who want to halt all development.

A gas well that takes up a half-acre of land can produce as much energy as 40 acres of highly obtrusive windmills, he said.

Limerick said she objects to environmentalists who "demonize" Dea. But she also objects to Dea's description of some environmentalists as obstructionists.

Blanket opposition to all development often reflects "a deep compelling faith" about the environment that deserves the same respect as organized religion, Limerick said.

Such people should be part of the Western discussion about energy, she said.

The Center for the West report is available free online at www.centerwest.com.


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