Saturday, September 19, 2009

Collateral Damage

Most media coverage of the public land wars follows a familiar but simplistic pattern. You have the malevolent force called "industry" on one side, poised to ruthlessly plunder the planet for private gain. Then you have the good guys, wearing green hats, who are just trying to "save" something "pristine" and "precious." Ignored in this sort of coverage are the Americans caught in the middle -- Westerners who appreciate (but don't necessarily worship) their natural surroundings, but would also like decent paying jobs, in something other than an ice cream scoop economy that caters to tourists.

I'm talking about unemployed timber workers in Oregon and Washington, living on welfare because America cares more about the Spotted owl than it cares about them. I'm talking about out-of-work commercial fishers in New England, California and Florida. I'm talking about ranchers and miners who've thrown in the towel, because government regulators are waging war on them. I'm talking about energy industry workers who aren't working, because anti-drilling zealots have derailed another domestic gas and oil project.

I'm talking about Jeremy and Amber Harrison of Vernal, Utah, who traveled all the way to Washington last week, for an appointment with an Interior Department official whose decisions can mean work or a welfare check for so many Westerners. They went carrying hand-written letters from folks back in Utah, who were left in the lurch when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, immediately after confirmation, unilaterally canceled 77 drilling leases in the state, which he and a few green groups say pose a threat to national parks.

The Harrison's wanted to deliver a "human impact statement." But the official, Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, snubbed them at the last minute -- reinforcing the message that arrogant Washingtonians are indifferent to the collateral damage their decisions inflict out here in fly-over country. Here's the story, as told by the Deseret News.

Stood-up Vernal couple still seek to tell oil-lease story in D.C.

They were there to talk about oil leases, but official canceled

When told they could meet with the Interior Department's No. 2 official, Jeremy and Amber Harrison pulled money out of their tight savings and with friends' help traveled to Washington, D.C., from Vernal, hoping to tell how canceling federal oil leases is hurting Vernal.
But after they arrived, an aide to Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes called and canceled the meeting that had been scheduled in the office of Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. They were told no other time was available with Hayes, but an alternate official could maybe meet with them sometime.

"This is not the way people ought to be treated," said an upset Bishop. He said his office had verified the meeting last week, but it was canceled at the last minute. "It is unfortunate. I mean these guys came back on their own dime to try and meet with Hayes."

It comes as the House Natural Resources Committee is beginning two days of hearings Wednesday on how to meet America's energy needs while protecting the environment, as administration officials, environmental groups, sportsmen, landowners and others are scheduled to testify.

Amid that, the Harrisons had sought Bishop's help to meet with Hayes and bring 150 or so letters from Vernal residents about how the administration's cancellation of oil leases there is hurting them. "It's going to be like a human impact statement," Bishop said, noting he will enter all of those letters into the record at the hearing.

"We need Americans at work, not foreigners" selling foreign oil to America, Jeremy Harrison said. He and his wife want to tell how unemployment has gone from about 1 percent around Vernal to 8.5 percent, which they blame largely on administration actions making it harder to drill for oil.

Amber Harrison said she and her husband own a small business to truck crude oil. "Our income has gone down drastically. We were on the verge of losing a few items, but we were able to pull things out," she said.

"But a lot of people around us have lost entire homes and cars and are wondering if they can feed their families," she said. "Many people have had to move away because they cannot find a job." Amber Harrison said she and her husband attended a "tea party" protest in April, and began talking with others about the need for a group to counter what they feel are misleading claims by environmental groups.

She said they formed a citizens group called Grassroots Alliance for Public Lands. "It was our response to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance," she said, and it started looking for ways to get out the story of the economic impacts of actions that make drilling harder.

When Hayes traveled to Vernal earlier this year for a hearing on canceled oil leases, the Harrisons and other members of their grass-roots alliance were there.

"I did get up and speak with David Hayes and I presented him with an 'I Love Drilling' T-shirt signed by people in Vernal. We were hopeful that because of comments he had made directly to me, that he would be willing to meet with us. Unfortunately, the willingness just isn't there," Amber Harrison said.

The Harrisons are meeting, however, with all members of the Utah delegation and with the Western Caucus of the House to tell stories of people in Vernal. They will also attend the hearings on energy, and Bishop has promised to ask some questions on their behalf while also presenting their letters.

One letter is from 9-year-old Heather Mendoza. It says that before her grandfather was laid off from his oil industry job, they lived in a home where she had a horse and a dog.
"We sold my horse because we could not afford to keep her. Where we moved in Vernal, we had to get rid of my dog as well," Mendoza wrote. "The only thing I ask is please let my grandpa go back to work so we can at least stay in Vernal."

In another letter, Kathleen Fladeland wrote that her husband has been out of work since February, after working in the oil industry for 40 years. "I am working a part-time job, but it does not cover even a quarter of our bills," adding they will "soon be in foreclosure if he can't find a decent job."

In another letter, Julie Curry wrote how even her car wash for large trucks in Vernal has been hurt by canceling oil leases, so truckers have fewer jobs and less need of her service.
"Our business has experienced a 67 percent decrease," she wrote, adding that it went from having nine employees earlier this year to now having just two.

Jeremy Harrison said of such letters, "Stuff like this should not be happening in America."
He added that while environmental groups argue that canceling oil leases could help tourism in Vernal by making areas more pristine, "tourism may help a bit in summer. But the oil fields are what keeps the area going all year long."

Several days later, at a congressional hearing, Secretary Salazar was asked by Rep. Bishop what response he had for people like the Harrisons. "Look at what is happening to real people on the ground as a result of decisions the Department of Interior has made in my home state of Utah," Bishop said. But the insufferably smug Salazar would not take responsibility, shifting that (as all Obama administration officials do) to the previous administration, which he says rushed the leases through.

"Salazar . . .said the Obama administration should not be blamed for economic problems in Utah oil country related to rescinding the auction, but the Bush administration should be for rushing the auction without fully consulting the National Park Service. "What happened with those 77 parcels … is that there was simply not the consultation that should have taken place there between the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service," Salazar told the House Natural Resources Committee. "Because that consultation did not take place, there was a need to review that to ensure that the other legal interests of the United States of America were being protected," he said . . .

. . . . Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, complained that Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes had canceled a meeting with Jeremy and Amber Harrison of Vernal who brought 150 letters from neighbors to describe economic distress from the canceled auction — after they spent their own money to travel to Washington on the promise of meeting him Tuesday.

"I'd be happy to take whatever documents they have," Salazar said, but said economic problems in the Uintah Basin should be blamed more on rushing a bad auction than on him for trying to fix it. "Sometimes what ends up happening is when the government does things in a rushed and wrong way, you end up having consequences to human beings like the Harrisons that you don't have when you do it the right way," Salazar said."

The oil and gas industry vigorously denies the process was shortcut. The Independent Petroleum Association of the Mountain States has produced a point-by-point rebuttal to these claims. An independent panel reinstated a number of the canceled leases, raising more doubts about the legitimacy of Salazar's actions. But the Interior secretary defending his abuses of power, arguing that he had the authority to unilaterally cancel leases "near" national parks.

"Many of those lease parcels are in fact going forward," Salazar said. "But the fact is I don't believe we should drill everywhere because not everyplace is appropriate for us to drill. We shouldn't be drilling near Arches National Park and Canyonlands and Dinosaur. Those are important treasures that we need to protect."

"Near" and "close" are relative terms in the sprawling West. What's "near" here would be "far" back East. Is a drilling rig 20 or 30 or 40 miles away from a national park boundary line really too close? Salazar and others are trying to make that claim (using what I call the "proximity ploy").

But since when did a single individual's subjective judgments become the basis for making such momentous decisions? And how many millions of acres of public lands are we removing from potentially productive uses when we draw such arbitrary and subjective buffer zones around parks? Given the prevalence of parks across the West -- just look at a map of southern Utah --isn't this a rationale for locking away a huge new swath of public lands?

That's exactly what it is.

Rep. Bishop is asking hard questions about whether Salazar's Interior Department colluded with outside groups on the issue. He pressed Salazar on this at the hearing:

"Bishop also complained that the department has not provided documents he has requested that he says may show it has a too cozy relationship with environmental groups that oppose oil drilling in Utah. "Your department has been foot-dragging, stonewalling and the only thing we have received is the apparently false claim that there are only seven communications," Bishop said. Salazar said, "We have thousands of pages, frankly, that have been sent over (or) are being sent over. … You've gotten a lot of those documents. You're getting a lot more."

Whether or not collusion can be documented, is there any doubt that Salazar and the Obama administration are water-carriers for the radical green groups that helped put them in power? No doubt, in my opinion. It's evident not just in the policies they're adopting, but in their arrogant indifference to the human casualties, and collateral damage to the American economy, these policies leave in their wake.

The Harrisons of Vernal Utah are just the tip of the iceberg.

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