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It's hard to imagine an oil well catastrophe in Wyoming that could compare to the damage wrought in the Gulf of Mexico for years to come.

Yet, when it comes to prevention and response, perhaps that's what industry and regulators ought to consider, according to some conservationists.

If a massive amount of oil entered the North Platte River, or an underground fissure began shooting gas into the Green River, is Wyoming prepared to respond? What would be the impact to fisheries, agriculture and economy for millions of people who rely on the Rockies' headwaters?

"It's a wake-up call. Whether it's onshore or offshore, there are risks when developing domestic resources," said Steve Belinda, energy policy manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Alliance.

As a former Bureau of Land Management biologist, Belinda said he's certain that some of the same factors that failed in the Mineral Management Service's administration of offshore drilling oversight in the Gulf can happen onshore.

"I can tell you there are similar problems in BLM," which oversees the vast majority of mineral development in Wyoming, Belinda said.

He said Wyoming will -- and should -- remain a major energy supplier to the nation. But he argues that industry has fought for three decades to erode regulations. And he believes the effort was successful in creating an imbalance of public resources in Wyoming -- favoring energy development over recreation, agriculture and other non-industrial uses.

There is a balance to be struck, Belinda said, where Wyoming can still have a healthy energy industry and a healthy environment.

The Gulf oil disaster is an opportunity for the policy discussions to enter a higher level of sincerity and seriousness -- not for extremists to ratchet up the rhetoric, he said. The nation needs domestic energy as well as intact ecosystems.

"We should step back and re-examine things, and make sure we are using adequate management to protect resources," Belinda said.

Braced for fallout

The Gulf oil disaster is a source of heartache and frustration for many in Wyoming's oil and gas industry.

"We've had people angry at the industry as long as I've been in it," said longtime Casper geologist Jimmy Goolsby of Goolsby, Finley & Associates.

"It's a strange industry to be in," Goolsby said. "On one hand I feel like I'm doing the nation good -- I'm helping out by producing energy resources we desperately need as a country. Yet people in general hate the industry I'm in. It's hard not to get frustrated and become a little angry yourself sometimes."

Goolsby said he's afraid the public and bureaucratic backlash from the Gulf oil disaster may have the same chilling effect on America's oil and gas industry that Three Mile Island had on America's nuclear power industry.

That's heartbreaking for many in the industry, because the Gulf disaster comes at a time when the industry in Wyoming is beginning to see a major breakthrough in the Niobrara oil sands formation in the eastern part of the state.

Sophisticated horizontal drilling and completion techniques have been applied to a handful of test wells in recent months that have yielded huge flows, injecting a sense of optimism in several eastern Wyoming counties that are the state's poorest.

Goolsby said the industry is just now beginning to unlock massive amounts of natural gas and oil in sands and shale formations -- even enough to seriously curtail America's need for oil imports if the nation also gets better at conservation.

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"I think we could be so far less dependent that it would make it possible for us to survive if we were cut off" from imports, he said.

But, "Something went wrong, and we're all going to pay for it. I'm afraid it will be essentially like Three Mile Island," Goolsby said.

Despite the current highlights of spills and accidents, longtime oil industry giant Diemer True said the industry has an excellent track record. He said he's certain there will be a "political overreaction" to the Gulf oil disaster.

"This is a very serious problem. I'm very disappointed this has happened. A political overreaction could damage Wyoming's economy," True said.

Regardless of the Gulf oil spill, the nation needs to continue to develop domestic oil and gas, he said. Whatever is discovered to be the root cause of the Gulf blowout should be addressed seriously.

True said a particular bright spot for a potential new oil sands play in Wyoming's Niobrara formation -- if it pans out -- is the fact that much of the mineral estate in the eastern half of Wyoming is privately held. That means federal regulation will not play a key role.

But True reiterated his concern about the current administration's philosophy toward oil and gas development.

"They are just anti-oil and gas exploration," he said.

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