Feds: Most oil, much of gas beneath public lands off-limits to drilling | AspenTimes.com

Feds: Most oil, much of gas beneath public lands off-limits to drilling

Matthew Brown
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

BILLINGS, Mont. ” A new report from the Bush administration says most of the oil and more than 40 percent of the natural gas beneath public lands in the United States are off limits to drilling.

Opening those reserves would give energy companies access to an estimated 19 billion barrels of oil and 95 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, administration officials said Wednesday. That would require Congress to roll back environmental safeguards and lift drilling prohibitions on vast areas ” from Florida to Alaska and across the Rocky Mountain West.

The report, from the Bureau of Land Management, is likely to add to growing political pressure to curb fuel imports and dampen prices by ramping up domestic energy production. But it comes amid a development backlash in some parts of the country, where drilling rigs are blamed for interrupting wildlife migrations, fouling water supplies and marring natural vistas.

“If we want to lower the cost of energy, we must be willing to use our own energy resources as part of a balanced and rational energy policy,” said Assistant Secretary of Interior C. Stephen Allred.

The inaccessible reserves outlined in Wednesday’s report amount to roughly a two-and-a-half-year supply of oil and a four-year supply of natural gas, based on current consumption.

However, the report drew harsh criticism from environmentalists and a leading member of Congress for oversimplifying the nation’s energy woes.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall pointed out that drilling on federal lands has increased steadily since 2000 ” even as gas prices rose. He said the BLM report gives the “absolutely false impression” that more drilling results in cheaper energy prices.

“We simply cannot drill our way to lower prices at the pump,” Rahall said.

Wednesday’s inventory sharply ratcheted up prior estimates of restrictions to production. In 2003, a study focused on Western states indicated roughly three-quarters of oil and gas reserves were open to development.

The latest study covers a much broader area ” 279 million acres managed by federal agencies. It does not include state or private lands, which generally have fewer restrictions on development and account for the majority of drilling in many states.

Federal officials said the inventory showed Alaska, home of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, has the largest inaccessible oil reserves. The Rocky Mountain West ” particularly southwest Wyoming ” was said to have the most natural gas.

An executive with the Independent Petroleum Association of America, Dan Naatz, said the BLM was “right on the mark” in identifying the huge volumes of oil and gas off-limits to his industry.

Meanwhile, the report was condemned by The Wilderness Society as “extremely misleading.” The group’s Nada Culver said the BLM had ignored the value of preserving some land from drilling, while exaggerating restrictions on development.

Nationwide, energy companies now hold mineral leases on approximately 44 million acres of federal land. In 2007, companies produced oil and gas from 11.6 million leased acres ” or one-quarter of the total available.

Oil companies face other constraints beyond laws that limit where and when development can occur. Houston-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp. says it has been producing as much gas and oil as it can given the limited availability of drill rigs and crews.

Still, a spokesman said the company is in favor of more access.

“We’re one of the few counties in the world that keeps much of our domestic resources off-limits,” spokesman John Christiansen said.

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