Group disputes report that U.S. energy development confined on federal lands

Judith Kohler
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” Government assertions that at least 40 percent of the oil and gas under federal lands is off limits to development are misleading and play on fears of rising energy prices, environmentalists said Thursday.

The Wilderness Society assailed a recent Interior Department report that 62 percent of the oil and 41 percent of the natural gas on 279 million acres of federal land is inaccessible.

It contended that federal agencies will be rushing to open up more land, mostly in the West, in the final months of the Bush administration.

Last week’s Interior Department report cites prohibitions on drilling and strict conditions that don’t permit direct access to oil and gas. The department says the lands contain an estimated 31 billion barrels of oil and 231 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Environmentalists said many of the lands where environmental concerns prohibit direct access can be developed offsite using modern drilling techniques. They add that land is being leased in areas where management plans are being revised, even though the Interior report says that’s not allowed.

If those areas are reclassified as accessible to industry, The Wilderness Society estimates that at least 84 percent of the gas under federal land could be developed.

Dave Alberswerth of The Wilderness Society in Washington criticized the federal report’s reference to the need to find ways to develop the oil and gas in light of escalating energy prices.

“The high energy prices are due to a host of factors that have absolutely nothing to do with drilling more,” Alberswerth said during a telephone news conference.

Alberswerth said oil and gas prices are set globally and energy prices have risen despite the increased pace of drilling.

The Wilderness Society said an analysis based on BLM data shows the agency approved about 35,000 drilling permits from 2001-2007 and leases on a total of 26.6 million acres. Based on BLM projections, the group said 125,000 new wells could be approved on federal land in the Rockies over the next 10 to 15 years.

Energy companies have leases on about 44 million acres of federal land nationwide, according to the BLM. Production occurred on 11.6 million of those acres last year.

“A record number of leases and permits have been issued ” so much that the industry can’t use it all,” said Nada Culver, an attorney with The Wilderness Society.

Companies lease large tracts of land in case some areas aren’t productive or regulations hold up development, said Marc Smith, executive director of the Denver-based Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States. Advances in technology can eventually turn an unpromising area into a major producer, Smith said.

“The Rockies produce 25 percent of the nation’s natural gas supply while only occupying 1 percent of the federal lands in the West,” Smith said.

BLM spokeswoman Celia Boddington in Washington said last week’s report is the third in a series mandated by a 2000 federal law and more will be issued. She denied that figures in the newest study were manipulated to make a case for more domestic energy production.

“The report was the result of rigorous scientific research,” Boddington said.

The BLM manages its lands for multiple uses, including energy development, recreation and other activities, she said.

The agency manages 258 million acres and oversees mineral development on Forest Service and other federal land.

Conservation, hunting and angling groups have increasingly complained that drilling is interfering with other uses. They have protested leases in areas throughout the Rocky Mountains.

Energy companies object to limits on drilling in certain areas, including restrictions meant to protect deer, sage grouse and other wildlife during mating and birthing seasons.

Alberswerth said what industry and government officials refer to as impediments to drilling include restrictions on drilling in communities’ watersheds and laws intended to protect air quality.

Culver said the BLM has allowed hundreds of exemptions from environmental review under a broader category of exclusions approved in 2005. For example, she said a review of proposed wells isn’t required if drilling occurred in the area within the last five years or if fewer than 5 acres will be disturbed as long as the total area affected doesn’t exceed 150 acres.

A total of 1,632 wells in Wyoming were exempted from environmental review from August 2005 to September 2007 under those exclusions, according to a Wilderness Society analysis.


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