WASHINGTON The Bush administration foresees no letup in the aggressive pace for Western oil and gas drilling, despite some voter backlash from people tired of seeing more and more rigs in their Rocky Mountain states.
"There's absolutely no doubt that the interest in oil and gas is going to continue. I mean, it is where it is," Jim Caswell, the new director of the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management, said in an interview Friday with The Associated Press. He took office in August.
Public lands managed by BLM produce 18 percent of the nation's natural gas and 5 percent of its oil. BLM manages 258 million acres, about one-eighth of the land in the United States. Most of that land grasslands, forests, high mountains, arctic tundra and deserts is in the West. It also oversees about 700 million acres of minerals below the land's surface.
Five basins in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico contain the nation's largest onshore reserves of natural gas. BLM has been approving about one of every four applications it receives for permits to drill. But states also approve leases; in Montana, about 120 of the 750 wells producing coal-bed methane are on federal leases.
"The key, though, to me is how do we develop that resource in the most environmentally sensitive way?" Caswell said. "I mean, how can we be as compatible as possible long-term? This is not some short-term thing; this is long-term. I mean, we're talking 20, 30 years."
The White House, emphasizing energy independence from foreign oil, has made it a top priority for BLM to speed up the processing of permits for oil and natural gas leasing. In some Western states, that has caused some GOP resistance.
Democrats have made gains in Colorado, taking the governorship and several congressional seats in recent years in part due to disenchantment among the "hook and bullet" crowd of sportsmen and ranchers who compete with energy drillers for use of public lands.
Caswell said he believes any voter backlash is "to some degree overblown." At the same time, he said such concerns for the environment underscore the importance of some of his top priorities for his remaining 16 months on the job.
Those include updating the formal plans the agency uses to manage each particular area that it is responsible for and working on a $22 million plan for protecting sage grouse and other wildlife prevalent in energy-producing areas of states such as Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming.
That approach is finding support among some GOP business proponents.
"My thinking to my fellow Republicans is, Let's look at the whole thing," said Marie Rossmiller, vice chair of the Colorado Republican Business Coalition, which advocates for property rights and lower taxes. "The new drilling is still fairly new, and I don't think there's been evidence to show that it's going to do some drastic changes."
Dell LeFevre, a fifth-generation rancher and GOP commissioner in solidly conservative Garfield County, Utah, called oil and gas drilling "a two-headed snake" that divides Western pro-energy and environmental interests.
"I'm not really seeing a backlash, but then I hear rumblings from the environmental groups," said LeFevre. "Everybody wants power, everybody wants to drive a car. We all want energy, but yet we don't want to drill for it."
Before going to work for Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, Caswell spent roughly three decades in various federal positions.