The age-old debate over energy development versus environmental preservation was heard again during a Congressional subcommittee hearing on land use issues and onshore oil and gas leasing and development Thursday in Washington, DC.

About a dozen witnesses testified before the House Natural Resources Committee subcommittees on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, and Energy and Mineral Resources. Among the issues discussed were: alleged soil contamination from produced water from coalbed methane wells; the responsiveness of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to citizen complaints against the energy industry; the rights of landowners in cases of split estates (where mineral rights are held separately from surface land rights); environmental remediation of spent well sites by producers; and reclamation bonding, not to mention U.S. energy security versus preservation of the environment.

At the start of the hearing, Rep. John Peterson (R-PA) testified that his district is home to Pennsylvania’s only national forest and his own home is a mere five miles from the site of the nation’s first natural gas well. He worried aloud that the Natural Resources Committee might be “moving toward decreased access” of public lands. “I hope that will not be the case,” he said. “Energy production on our public lands can be done responsibly.”

He warned that any efforts to further curtail access to public lands for oil and gas producers would only drive up energy prices and make the country less competitive globally. He added that it is not the major producers, such as ExxonMobil Corp., that would be hurt, but rather the independent producers, which drill the vast majority of oil and gas wells in America.

Peggy Utesch, a landowner who said she was driven from her home and made sick by excessive drilling activity, testified on behalf of the Western Organization of Resource Councils & Western Colorado Congress. She took issue with the assertion that further regulating drilling activity would drive up gas and oil prices. “It’s the market value at which the commodity is traded that sets the price,” she said.

During testimony and questioning, Utesch lamented the fact that operators are not required to post more in bond for well reclamation. She said she knows of cases where operators have posted as little as $60-some per well in reclamation bonds. In cases where an operator has posted, say $25,000 in bonds and is facing $100,000 in reclamation costs, she said, “It’s a hell of a lot cheaper for them to walk that bond. And it has happened.”

Rep. Stevan Pearce (R-NM), the ranking member of the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee, told the hearing that it is a fiction that the Bush administration has had a policy of leasing public lands “at all costs.” Upon questioning by Pearce, witness Henri Bisson, BLM deputy director, said that during the 1980s the country had leased three times as many acres as are leased currently — 131 million versus 42 million, he said.

With regard to the issue of split estates, Bisson said that out of thousands of split estate wells there are only 20 where operator-landowner rights are in dispute. Witness Steve Adami, a rancher and representative of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, disagreed, saying he knew of 12 on his own former property. He asserted that the BLM has refused to recognize Wyoming’s Split Estate Act. Adami said he does not want to stop oil and gas development, but he maintains an interest in landowner rights even though he has since sold his ranch to Yates Petroleum.

When Pearce asked Adami how much he sold his ranch for, Adami declined to answer. He wouldn’t tell Pearce whether it was above or below market value, but Pearce chuckled a little and said that he could guess.

Adami and other witnesses said they support legislation introduced in the House — the Western Waters and Farmland Protection Act (HR 1180) — which would provide greater protection of water resources, grant more protections to surface rights owners and set tougher standards for reclamation bonding and responsibility for abandoned wells.

“Public lands are an incredible resource. They belong to all of us,” said witness Ashley Korenblat, a former Wall Streeter who now runs Western Spirit Cycling, a mountain bike tour operator in western states. “The outdoors really have the power to heal and make us better people. Land in its pristine form can provide revenues to the outdoor industry forever.”

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