Barone Is Wrong About the Interior Department, Oil and Democrats in the West

Energy development in Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico has irked the West.

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By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog.

I must admit that I'm somewhat stunned at my Thomas Jefferson Street colleague Michael Barone's view of the U.S. Department of Interior, which is so different than my own.

Michael sees a federal agency staffed by sleeper cells of anti-growth radicals, who are now stirring in the advent of a new Democratic administration, ready to emerge and thwart economic progress across the globe.

He's issued warnings about "the environmental restrictionist culture of Interior Department career employees" and—admirably and candidly owning up to his own traumatic near-encounter with a polar bear—urged us to overcome our misplaced, emotional sympathies for these cruel, mighty killers of the North.

Well, Interior's career employees must be hardy moles, Mike. They've been working for GOP chief executives and Free Market ideologues and Republican-appointed Secretaries—and sleazy industry goons like disgraced deputy secretary Steve Griles—for 20 of the last 28 years.

Yes. Having spent some time working for a great Western newspaper, I'll concede that there are still a few wildlife biologists and other scientists left in the ranks at Interior, who respect the law and do the science and write honest technical reports.

Not all have quit, or succumbed to the relentless political pressure to tailor their research. Being a scientist, or an honest civil servant, at Interior in recent years has been much like serving in the CIA before the Iraq war. There is truth, and then there's what the bosses want to hear. Slam dunk, baby.

Some of the federal scientists—shocking though it might seem to Hugh Hewitt—even reach conclusions that disappoint the environmental movement.

During the presidential campaign, John "Drill, baby, drill" McCain had great fun ridiculing federal scientists who conducted a grizzly bear DNA study in Montana. Well, guess what? The study found that the bears were faring pretty well—to the chagrin, no doubt, of environmental groups that wanted to employ the plight of endangered bear cubs in their fundraising letters, and legal briefs.

As for the prospect of a new Western "sagebrush rebellion"—we're in one. And it's Democrats who are leading the rebel armies.

A tide of new energy development out West has gone largely unnoticed on the coasts. We flatlanders need gas to heat and cook. And natural gas—for a fossil fuel—is a relatively clean alternative.

But vast swaths of Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico have been pockmarked by thousands of new gas wells. The Bush administration has been so eager to approve new drilling that Interior personnel who were supposed to be working on mitigation and reclamation plans were pressed into service to process (that is, to approve) permits and leases.

In the process, the rapacious, often arrogant, land-grabbing and at-times-polluting energy companies have alienated many of their former conservative political allies who ranch, hunt, fish, backpack, camp, ski and hike on public lands out West—or who make their living supplying the ranchers, outfitters and recreation industry—or who just chose and cherished the region as a quiet, free place to live.

There are lots of reasons why Ken Salazar and Mark Udall are the Democratic senators from Colorado—why Ken's brother John represents conservative, rural western and southern Colorado in Congress—and why so many Western states (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming etc.) have elected Democratic governors in recent years. But one major factor is that the oil and gas industry has pretty much run amok in the Cheney-Bush era, and Western voters have voiced their objections at the polls.

  • Read more by John Aloysius Farrell.
  • Read more from the Thomas Jefferson Street blog.
  • Read more about the environment.
  • Read more by Michael Barone.
  • Read more about the Department of the Interior.
  • Read more about the Bush administration.