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Last year's BP oil spill guaranteed that offshore drilling would remain a huge political issue. It pits the demand for energy against concern for the environment. A similar battle is going on far from any coastline. Companies bid for the right to drill on public lands in the Rocky Mountains. And environmental groups have found they can slow drilling by challenging the drilling leases.
NPR's Jeff Brady reports.
JEFF BRADY: Cary Brus has been dealing with this controversy for several years now. He's vice president of the Nerd Gas Company in Casper, Wyoming, and he says environmental challenges are slowing down business.
Mr. CARY BRUS (Vice President, Nerd Gas Company): We're tired of spending our money, having the government cash our check and taking our money and not issuing the leases. We believe it's a breach of contract. It's a contractual obligation. They took our money. We want our leases - pretty simple.
BRADY: The Mineral Leasing Act says the Bureau of Land Management has 60 days to award a lease. But a government report last summer found the BLM was able to do that less than 10 percent of the time in the Rocky Mountain region. Brus' company is one of several suing the BLM, claiming the agency is breaking the law. But these leases also are subject to other regulations designed to protect the environment.
We're with Joy Bannon of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, bouncing along a dirt road near the state border with Colorado. Suddenly, she spots the reason her group challenged a lease sale here.
(Soundbite of door shutting)
BRADY: We jump out of the truck, and Bannon points about a half-mile down the road.
Ms. JOY BANNON (Wyoming Wildlife Federation): There's about 20 to 30 antelope -pronghorn - grazing and milling about.
BRADY: Bannon says this is where pronghorn antelope come in the winter to feed. In this place, the whipping wind blows snow around and exposes grass and shrubs for the animals to eat. Nearby, she says, there's also an important winter-time habitat for mule deer and sage grouse. If drilling were allowed here, Bannon says that would put these animals at risk.
Ms. BANNON: One of the great things about this state is we have world-class wildlife. We also have world-class energy resources, and so we need to find a balance of that.
BRADY: Environmental groups have worried that places like this were being handed over to the oil and gas industry without much scrutiny.
Mr. ERIK MOLVAR (Director, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance): Under the last half of the Bush administration, there was an avalanche of oil and gas leasing activity.
BRADY: Erik Molvar heads the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Laramie. He says groups started challenging leases as a way of slowing that avalanche. Molvar says public land in Wyoming should be available for all kinds of uses, including recreation.
Mr. MOLVAR: For so many years, the oil and gas industry has had the entire pie of all the public lands all to themselves. And so, of course, they're going to be very upset at the idea that somebody should come in and say that these public lands don't belong to them exclusively.
BRADY: At the BLM office in Cheyenne, Julie Weaver says the agency's focus changed from oil and gas to renewable energy after President Obama was sworn in nearly two years ago. And she says that made it difficult to get leases awarded on time.
Ms. JULIE WEAVER (Bureau of Land Management): Prior to February 2009, we were about two months behind. So we were doing it within 60, 90 days. After the change in the administration, we had to step back and do some reevaluation, and because of that, we have a backlog.
BRADY: Weaver says the agency is changing its leasing process so that concerns from environmental groups are addressed before a lease goes to auction. That likely will lead to fewer leases sold and less money for the federal treasury. Kathleen Sgamma with the Western Energy Alliance says her industry is starting to lose interest in drilling on public land.
Ms. KATHLEEN SGAMMA (Western Energy Alliance): I think you have seen some pullback in activity as we've gotten very clear signals from this administration that it's going to be difficult to get leases, it's going to be difficult to get permits and project approvals.
BRADY: Sgamma says that's a shame, because her industry could be providing thousands of jobs at a time the country needs them.
Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.�
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