A few weeks ago, a Texas oilman cornered me at a brewery in the high-mountain town of Ouray, in western Colorado. Some young women from Moab had just taken the table next to my friend and myself, when the fellow wandered over to buy us a round.
Eventually, he revealed that he worked for ConocoPhillips. This didn't go over well with the Utah ladies, and Mr. ConocoPhillips grew defensive: Did they think the vehicle they had driven here ran on rainbows? When he found out I covered the industry as a reporter, he leaned in tipsily and asked, "Can we have a conversation? A real conversation?"
The answer was apparently no, since what ensued felt like an energy-focused version of writer Rebecca Solnit's essay, "Men explain things to me."
But if he had gotten past his assumption that I was an airy naïf, he would have realized that I mostly agreed with him: As drilling impinges on more communities, those communities need to have "real," critical conversations about energy development, conversations in which the locals recognize their role as consumers.
Paonia, where I live and work, recently became such a town. Last December, nearly 30,000 acres in the surrounding North Fork Valley were nominated for oil and gas leasing. Though the proposal was deferred this summer for further study, in November, the Bureau of Land Management announced its intent to auction about 20,000 of those acres Feb. 14.
Given the habitat fragmentation and pollution that energy development can bring, many here have fought the proposal. Some of the earlier leases sprawled across mountain biking areas or sat next to schools. Others encompassed springs that feed the town water system or surrounded irrigation ditches for ranches, organic farms and vineyards. As Peter Heller reported in an essay for Bloomberg BusinessWeek this July, the North Fork Valley "is home to the largest concentration of organic farms in the Rocky Mountains. ... The valley produces 77 percent of the state's apples, 71 percent of its peaches." The BLM received nearly 3,000 comments on the proposal, mostly in opposition.
"None of (those) issues ... are incompatible with oil and gas development,"Steven Hall, BLM's Colorado communications director, told Heller.
Even so, in its latest proposal, the agency removed a couple of the more controversial parcels, including the one closest to Paonia's water supply and another containing a popular trail network.
Most of the parcels remain, though. Worse, the sale would occur under the terms of the outdated Resource Management Plan, a 23-year-old document which governs development on hundred of thousands of acres. If the agency waited, it could re-examine the proposal under the updated version - due in draft this spring - which, in theory, would allow it to account for advances in drilling technology and changes to the area's economy, demographics and environment. That might help the agency strike a clearer balance between energy development and other interests.
At an environmental film festival in Paonia soon after the BLM's decision, the audience booed throughout a Google Earth tour of the parcels still up for lease.
When a staffer from the conservation group who hosted the event noted that the mountain biking parcel had been withdrawn, discontent only grew. Many refused to accept any leasing whatsoever.
Opponents believe, as do their counterparts in many communities facing oil and gas development, that some places are too special to drill. It's a valid view; I often share it. But that raises an uncomfortable question: Are there any places so unspecial that they should be drilled? Mr. ConocoPhillips knows well that few of us in Paonia or elsewhere can say we don't rely on these fuels - for heat, for transport, for electricity, for the fertilization of food. Every place matters to somebody. And what patch of Earth isn't habitat for at least a few wonderful somethings?
As Bobby Reedy, who runs a local auto shop in Paonia, told Heller: "I wanna flick the light switch and know the lights are gonna come on. If it's not in my backyard, whose is it gonna be in?"
If we continue to insist on living as we do now, maybe we need to see drill rigs from our kitchen windows and hiking trails, even our school playgrounds.
How else can we truly understand the costs of something we use unless we're confronted with them daily? This isn't just the machinery of corporate greed; it's the machinery of our vast collective energy appetite. And if we can't look directly at it, and can't accept what it does to our water and air, then it's time to do more than just fight drilling. It's time to go on an energy diet.
Sarah Gilman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, where she is the magazine's associate editor (hcn.org).