...nature groups, noting the emphasis on production rather than preservation, fear the administration will use the council as a vehicle to run roughshod over rules that protect public lands...
Plan taps 'Persian Gulf of natural gas' in West
Federal energy council will meet in Colorado
By Mike Soraghan, Denver Post Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has singled out the Rocky Mountain West for a pilot project to speed up energy development.
The White House has charged a group of top administration officials with finding ways to streamline environmental approvals and accelerate renewable-energy projects, pipeline construction and natural-gas drilling on public lands.
The group, called the Rocky Mountain Energy Council, is to hold its first meeting Tuesday at the Denver Federal Center, where it may set up permanent offices.
The Bush administration and industry are eager to tap into what's been called a "Persian Gulf of natural gas" in the West, and the meeting comes after dire warnings from Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan of natural-gas shortages damaging the U.S. economy.
The council's goal is to get federal and state officials talking and prevent unnecessary production delays in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
"The Rocky Mountains are 'energy central' in the West," said Jim Sims, who worked for Vice President Dick Cheney in developing the National Energy Plan and now runs the Golden-based Western Business Roundtable, an association of energy companies. "From a business perspective, we would rather have a fast 'no' than a slow 'maybe."'
Ideas the council may consider include working on several environmental permits at once rather than reviewing them in sequence, and highlighting problems early in the process.
But nature groups, noting the emphasis on production rather than preservation, fear the administration will use the council as a vehicle to run roughshod over rules that protect public lands.
"We've seen that the administration is out to do the bidding of industry," said Mike Chiropolos of the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies. The members of the council, he said, "have not conveyed to anyone in the environmental community that they're concerned about the environment."
President Bush's energy plan said there are 137 trillion cubic feet - a seven-year supply for the nation - of natural gas in an area centered on Colorado and Wyoming.
The Energy Information Administration says gas consumption is expected to increase 60 percent by 2020, with much of the increased supply to come from the Rockies. The EIA said production in the Rockies is expected to grow 93 percent in that time period to 5.5 trillion cubic feet a year.
Much of that gas lies under federal land.
Despite complaints for years that much of the supply was "locked up" by preservationist federal policies, the administration released a study in January that found only 12 percent of the natural gas under federal lands in five of the West's major geological basins is "totally unavailable" for leasing.
Still, complaints remain that the federal approval process is too slow. That's what the Rocky Mountain Energy Council is meant to fix.
"The idea is to get people in a room, face-to-face, and talk about how do we best work together," said Dana Perino, spokeswoman for the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, which is in charge of the panel. "Corporations do it all the time."
The energy council is a pilot project of the White House Task Force on Energy Project Streamlining, created by Bush's National Energy Plan. It is part of the Council on Environmental Quality, which sets environmental policy for the administration.
The council would be subdivided into two groups. One would include representatives of Western governors and Washington-level Bush administration officials in environmental departments such as Interior, Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. The other would be Bush-appointed regional chiefs, such as regional foresters, regional park managers and U.S. Bureau of Land Management state directors.
The regional managers would break into groups looking at issues such as securing rights of way for pipelines and coalbed methane, a form of natural gas.