by Shawn Regan
This summer, the unthinkable happened. Without litigation, an energy corporation and an environmental group reached a voluntary compromise on how to achieve two seemingly irreconcilable ends: environmental preservation and natural gas drilling. The Bill Barrett Corporation and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) agreed to limit drilling on Bureau of Land Management lands on the West Tavaputs Plateau in central Utah – an area rich in recreational opportunities, archeological resources, and natural gas.
The story goes like this. The Bill Barrett Corp. had acquired leases to drill for natural gas near Nine Mile Canyon, an area revered by recreationists for its stunning landscapes and prehistoric Indian petroglyphs. The area is also home to abundant reservoirs of natural gas – a scenario that typically results in political jockeying and lengthy legal battles. However, a series of meetings between SUWA and Barrett negotiators resulted in a plan to limit the number of drill wells by about 70 percent and reduce the surface area impact from 3,656 acres to 1,603 acres by implementing “directional drilling” techniques. “This is the purest win-win we could come up with,” remarked Barrett’s vice president. The plan was also hailed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and others as an “unprecedented” and “historic” agreement.
The unfortunate reality is that compromises between industry and environmentalists are the exception, not the rule, on public lands. Multiple-use mandates and environmental review processes keep public land managers in a perpetual state of political gridlock that is often marked by protracted litigation.
But compromises between industry and environmentalists are not so uncommon on privately-owned lands, where land managers have the right incentives to reach such win-win agreements. In this way, private lands offer a valuable lesson on how to ensure that cooperation between such diametrically-opposed groups becomes less the exception, and more the rule.
Consider the Paul J. Rainey Preserve in Louisiana, which is owned by the Audubon Society. For nearly 50 years, a natural gas company operated within the sanctuary under strict rules put in place by the Audubon Society, such as no pumping during nesting season and equipment requirements that makes less noise. This arrangement brought in more than $25 million for Audubon, which was used to improve the sanctuary and purchase additional lands for preservation.