The West: Wildlands, Democrats , Republicans, Energy Exploration



“Western Democrats have found success recasting environmentalism as a 

defense of threatened water supplies, fishing spots and hunting 

grounds. As a result, the party may hold the advantage this fall in 

the region’s key Congressional races. The simultaneous rise of 

Western energy production and the Western Democrat is no coincidence.”


“Republicans created a monster for themselves,” said Rick Ridder, a 

Colorado-based Democratic consultant. “They put public policy in 

direct conflict with their base voters.”


“…industry workers upbraided officials for considering rules that 

could slow gas drilling along the Colorado-New Mexico border. 

Century-old antigovernment emotions are now aimed at state regulators 

– and much of the vitriol comes from working-class Democrats.”




Drilling for Defeat?


Published: May 18, 2008


Nearly two decades ago, Republicans won the West by linking Democrats 

to environmentalists, who supposedly cared more for the spotted owl 

and other favored species than they did for the jobs of loggers or 

miners. But now, as a boom in natural-gas drilling reshapes the 

region, Western Democrats have found success recasting 

environmentalism as a defense of threatened water supplies, fishing 

spots and hunting grounds. As a result, the party may hold the 

advantage this fall in the region’s key Congressional races. The 

simultaneous rise of Western energy production and the Western 

Democrat is no coincidence.


The Rocky Mountain drilling boom has been aided by the 2005 Energy 

Policy Act, which was once considered a partisan political 

masterstroke. In providing incentives for energy development, 

Republicans delivered a profitable gift to an industry that directs 

most of its campaign contributions to G.O.P. candidates. That gift 

was sweetened by the Bureau of Land Management, which, under 

President Bush, has expanded the amount of federal land open to 

energy development and increased the number of drilling permits.


But the acceleration of energy exploration has split the national 

Republican Party from local Republicans upset by the downsides of the 

energy boom. “Republicans created a monster for themselves,” said 

Rick Ridder, a Colorado-based Democratic consultant. “They put public 

policy in direct conflict with their base voters.”


In Wyoming’s Upper North Platte Valley, Jeb Steward, a Republican 

state representative, helped lead the successful 2007 opposition to 

the B.L.M.’s proposed sale of 13 oil and gas parcels. “We have 

customs and cultures that have developed over a hundred years based 

on the utilization of multiple renewable resources – agriculture, 

tourism, wildlife, fisheries,” Steward said. “When B.L.M. proposed 

issuing the leases, residents were asking, ‘What does this mean to 

the lifestyles that we’ve all grown accustomed to?’ ”


One wing of the Bush administration appears to have heard the 

message. In February, the Environmental Protection Agency asked the 

Bureau of Land Management to revise its plan to allow nearly 4,400 

new natural-gas wells on the Pinedale Anticline in Wyoming, citing 

ozone pollution from drilling rigs. “We have to balance economic 

success, energy development and the love that the people of Wyoming 

have for their special places,” said Gary Trauner, the Democratic 

candidate hoping to replace Wyoming’s retiring Republican 

congresswoman, Barbara Cubin.


Energy is also likely to affect politics in two Western states where 

the offspring of conservation icons are running for Senate. In New 

Mexico, Representative Tom Udall, a Democrat and the son of Stewart 

Udall, secretary of the interior under Kennedy and Johnson, may face 

off against the Republican congresswoman Heather Wilson. Two years 

ago, Wilson belatedly backed Udall’s bill to limit local drilling 

after being criticized on the issue by a 2006 election opponent.


In Colorado, Representative Mark Udall, Tom’s cousin and the son of 

the late environmentalist congressman Morris (Mo) Udall, is running 

for the Senate against Bob Schaffer, a former Republican congressman 

who works for a natural-gas company. Colorado has experienced a 

sixfold increase in drilling permits since 1999, and the B.L.M. has 

leased a New Jersey-size 5.2 million acres of federal land for new 

energy exploration in the state. Already a conservative group has 

broadcast television ads attacking Udall for trying to limit 

drilling. But election trends suggest that such criticisms may be 

losing effectiveness.


Of course, a recession – and corresponding fears of job losses – 

could halt the political shift. At a recent hearing convened by the 

Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, industry workers 

upbraided officials for considering rules that could slow gas 

drilling along the Colorado-New Mexico border. Century-old 

antigovernment emotions are now aimed at state regulators – and much 

of the vitriol comes from working-class Democrats.


But can they swing an election? According to Headwaters Economics, a 

Montana-based research group, the energy sector currently employs 

only 1.3 percent of the region’s work force. And mining generated 

just 2.9 percent of all personal income in the five 

natural-gas-producing Western states in 2006. By contrast, retirement 

benefits, service jobs and professional industries generated about 55 

percent of the region’s income. Many of these sectors have an 

interest in reducing energy development. After all, retirees, 

professionals and tourism businesses often come to the region for the 

open spaces.


“Lots of drilling is great for the industry,” said Headwaters 

Economics’ associate director, Ben Alexander. “But is it good for the 

region as a whole?” The political battle for the West will be won by 

whichever party offers the most convincing answer.


David Sirota is the author of “The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of 

the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington.”



“The tendency for success to breed complacency and recklessness

is as ingrained in financial markets as it is in any other walk of life.”


Banks:Barbarians atthe vault. The Economist,May 15th 2008




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