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Oil Industry Inadvertently Aids Historical Finds

December 8, 2006

In today’s Chicago Tribune there is a story, by Michael Martinez, titled “Archeology booms with oil and gas.” In the piece, Martinez outlines how “the oil and gas boom of the West has also opened vast lands to discoveries by an unlikely group: archeologists.” Here are some excerpts:

– “Because the Bush administration is pushing for more energy extraction on federal property, and because laws require cultural resource surveys before any such drilling, private archeologists are enjoying a boom of their own.”
– “Since 2000, the archeologists have been discovering so many sites–several thousand a year–that Wyoming has become the top state for new sites that are deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, said Tim Nowak of the Bureau of Land Management’s Wyoming office. This year, 1,234 sites were considered eligible for the National Register, said Nowak, deputy preservation officer. Those discoveries came after 121,494 acres in Wyoming were inventoried by archeologists, he said. Officials say the archeological bonanza is occurring on federal property throughout the country.”
– “Wyoming State Historic Preservation Officer Sara Needles said her 13-person office can barely fathom the wealth of the archeological findings. The office doesn’t even have the time to nominate the most significant sites for the National Register, said Needles and her deputy, Mary Hopkins. Still, the very act of designating them historic or prehistoric provides legal protection, they said.”
– “Some energy companies find the gamut of federally required surveys to be a burden. Archeological surveys can cost $100,000 for a group of wells over 3 to 4 square miles and take 6 to 12 months to complete.”
– “Sites that are older than 50 years, generally going back to 1720, are considered ‘historic’ – a definition that Kennedy finds objectionable. A horse watering tank or debris left behind by a sheepherders’ camp – as long as it’s more than 50 years old – will force a redirection in drilling plans, he said. ‘We’re not talking about significant Indian ruins, we’re talking about junk from prior to the last 50 years,’ Kennedy said.”
– “For now, many of the archeologists’ inventories and sketches are in databases and on shelves in Needles’ offices at the University of Wyoming, which O’Dell says conjures up the final warehouse scene of the film Raiders of the Lost Ark. The electronic data are available to academic researchers on a restricted Web site, Hopkins said. But preservationists want all of the material to be available, and to be analyzed.”

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Do check out the article: there’s much more there.

I love lessons in unintended consequences. By trying to extract more natural resources, the our government has put itself in conflict with itself: federal v. state. In sum, the common good becomes quite complicated – and the flexibility and durability of our institutions are tested. Which aspect of the common good will win out? What if Wyoming, in an act of local control, decides that historic preservation is more important than oil? – TL

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