Though more than 1,000 miles away from La Plata County, the oil spill that has been painting the Gulf of Mexico black
since April 20 hits closer to home than we may like to think. Not only is the spill's responsible party - BP - a
household name for those living in the San Juan Basin, but the story of promoting energy development now and
considering the consequences later, if ever, is all too familiar.
As the Gulf accident proves, those consequences can be dramatic, far-reaching and game-changing. But even when things
go less wrong than they have for BP, Gulf Coast residents and the surrounding ecosystem, it points to a need for
careful, thorough consideration of all potential impacts such activity can have. Beyond that, the Gulf disaster
painfully illustrates the need for accountability from those who benefit - greatly - from gas and oil development;
accountability for anticipating, avoiding and mitigating the ill effects of their activities.
That is where BP and the Interior Department's Mineral Management Services have failed the public and the environment
- and where the local parallel is most alarming. Based on BP's argument that a spill of any significance was
unlikely, MMS granted the company a categorical exclusion from conducting a full environmental impact statement for
the project. That tool is a popular one for companies that would rather not be bothered to consider the range of
impacts - and alternatives - their project could have on anything beyond the bottom line, and has been employed
locally as often as companies can get away with it.
In fact, the free hand with which some management agencies distribute categorical exclusions - notably the Bureau of
Land Management's Farmington field office - has made a mockery of the environmental laws that are meant to balance
extractive uses and public health and safety. It has been the basis for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's effort to
reform leasing policies - the details of which are expected to be announced any day.
Overlooking or sidestepping the protections designed to strike that balance undermines the integrity of the public
process by which decisions are made about how our lands, water, air and wildlife will be managed. It gives companies
like BP primacy in a discussion that should put all parties on equal footing.
And it does so by making energy needs the trump card in all arguments. Framing the situation as one where the gas
companies are victims of the economy, selflessly delivering what Americans demand to fuel their lifestyles, makes the
necessary checks, balances and responsibility seem oppressive and inconvenient. They are not, and Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, should be ashamed for dismissing the Gulf disaster's implications as a
necessary evil. "While the conversation has shifted, the energy reality has not," Gerard said. "The American economy
still relies on oil and gas."
Perhaps, but that does not absolve anyone of the responsibility to behave ethically.
firstname.lastname@example.org Megan Graham is director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.