Opinion: It’s Time to Say, ‘Yes in My Backyard’


A few weeks ago, a Texas oilman cornered me at a brewery in Ouray, Colorado. Some young women from Moab had just taken the table next to my friend and me when the fellow wandered over to buy us a round.

Eventually, he revealed that he worked for ConocoPhillips. That didn’t go over well with the Utah ladies, and Mr. ConocoPhillips grew defensive: Did they think the vehicle they had driven here ran on rainbows? When he found out I covered the industry as a reporter, he leaned in tipsily and asked, “Can we have a conversation? A real conversation?”

The answer was apparently no, since what ensued felt like an energy-focused version of writer Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Men explain things to me.”

But if he had gotten past his assumption that I was an airy naif, he would have realized that I mostly agreed with him: As drilling impinges on more communities, those communities need to have “real,” critical conversations about energy development, conversations in which the locals recognize their role as consumers.

Paonia, Colorado, where I live and work, recently became such a town. Last December, nearly 30,000 acres in the surrounding North Fork Valley were nominated for oil and gas leasing. Though the proposal was deferred this summer for further study, in November, the Bureau of Land Management announced its intent to auction about 20,000 of those acres February 14.

Given the habitat fragmentation and pollution that energy development can bring, many here have fought the proposal. Some of the earlier leases sprawled across mountain biking areas or sat next to schools. Others encompassed springs that feed the town water system or surrounded irrigation ditches for ranches, organic farms, and vineyards. As Peter Heller reported in an essay for Bloomberg BusinessWeek this July, the North Fork Valley “is home to the largest concentration of organic farms in the Rocky Mountains…The valley produces 77 percent of the state’s apples, 71 percent of its peaches.” The BLM received nearly 3,000 comments on the proposal, mostly in opposition.

“None of [those] issues…are incompatible with oil and gas development,” Steven Hall, BLM’s Colorado communications director, told Heller. Even so, in its latest proposal, the agency removed a couple of the more controversial parcels, including the one closest to Paonia’s water supply and another containing a popular trail network.

Most of the parcels remain, though. Worse, the sale would occur under the terms of the outdated Resource Management Plan, a 23-year-old document that governs development on hundred of thousands of acres. If the agency waited, it could re-examine the proposal under the updated version — due in draft this spring — which, in theory, would allow it to account for advances in drilling technology and changes to the area’s economy, demographics, and environment. That might help the agency strike a clearer balance between energy development and other interests.

At an environmental film festival in Paonia soon after the BLM’s decision, the audience booed throughout a Google Earth tour of the parcels still up for lease. When a staffer from the conservation group who hosted the event noted that the mountain biking parcel had been withdrawn, discontent only grew. Many refused to accept any leasing whatsoever.

Opponents believe, as do their counterparts in many communities facing oil and gas development, that some places are too special to drill. It’s a valid view, and I often share it. But that raises an uncomfortable question: Are there any places so unspecial that they should be drilled? Mr. ConocoPhillips knows well that few of us in Paonia or elsewhere can say we don’t rely on these fuels — for heat, for transport, for electricity, for the fertilization of food. Every place matters to somebody. And what patch of earth isn’t habitat for at least a few wonderful somethings?

As Bobby Reedy, who runs a local auto shop in Paonia, told Heller: “I wanna flick the light switch and know the lights are gonna come on. If it’s not in my backyard, whose is it gonna be in?”

If we continue to insist on living as we do now, maybe we need to see drill rigs from our kitchen windows and hiking trails, even our school playgrounds.

How else can we truly understand the costs of something we use unless we’re confronted with them daily? This isn’t just the machinery of corporate greed; it’s the machinery of our vast collective energy appetite. And if we can’t look directly at it, and can’t accept what it does to our water and air, then it’s time to do more than just fight drilling. It’s time to go on an energy diet.

Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com. In affiliation with High Country News. Oil rig photo by Shutterstock.

{ 6 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Daniel

    I agree 100%, good stuff.
    For the list of places I don’t want to see drilling rigs is quite long it is generally not the oil drilling that I have an issue with. I don’t want to see anything in these places, aside from a trail or two. No roads, no highways, no gas stations or convenience stores. No strip malls or half million dollar homes surrounding a golf course. I don’t want drilling in most special places because I don’t want to see any development there.
    On second thought, maybe that is an idea; maybe drilling rigs and oil wells should be integrated into that list of things many americans find so important these days. That far corner of the Mall parking lot looks like prime drilling rig space, and what would it really take to put in a 19th hole?

  • JC

    The bigger issue that never gets mentioned- the entire reason we must continue to develop pristine lands for more energy across the planet- is our human nature to breed more children than necessary to ensure our species’ survival. Population growth and conversations surrounding the negative effects it has globally is still taboo in many cultures. Until we address this one issue and change societal perceptions that a large family is key to survival, the pillaging will continue in all of our backyards no matter what. It is and will be our own undoing- we are locusts of the earth.

  • Dan

    This isn’t just the machinery of corporate greed; it’s the machinery of our vast collective energy appetite.

    Well said. If not here, where? Nigeria doesn’t look so great. I feel inconsistent – on one had demanding they stop, with the other begging them to continue.

  • CM

    Great article.

    I agree with Daniel. The infrastructure required to support drilling / production operations (wide roads, tank batteries, pipelines) and the changes in small communities near booming areas (like most small towns surrounding US shale plays at the moment) are the long term, unsightly effects.

  • Rob C

    I agree too many people want to ban the practice of you name it but not forego the product. I love wilderness, wild places am an avid hiker mountain climber but also am a forester. I see to many not in my backyard rants w/o thinking through where will the product come from if not in my back yard. I say yes in my back yard but in the right way we can practice forestry in my case and cut trees if done responsibly, am sure this is true of the drilling industry as well, if not then lets keep the lights off.
    Good artilce that gets the thought process started

  • Chris

    Great, Great, article and I absolutely concur with Rob C and Dan.

    While I would certainly consider myself a lover of the wilderness and even an environmental advocate, I am often frustrated with the outright hypocrisy of many “environmental” groups. Though well intended, they are often so focused on hammering the corporate “villians” that they can’t see their own daily shortcomings are driving the demand for more/less expensive energy and resources.

    The fact is, unless it is convenient or less expensive, most people are often not willing to make the necessary sacrifices needed to affect real change. Though often over looked by the environmental groups, one of the best aspects of our market is, if you can get the masses to redirect the demand to a “better product”, you can force about any change you want. Unfortunately, right now, the masses don’t see the value or the adverse effects of their consumption.

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