Interior Report Finds Broad Access Restrictions on Federal Lands

A new Interior Department report finds that substantial volumes of oil and gas on energy-rich federal lands are off-limits to development -- a conclusion that is likely to spur industry calls for wider domestic access.

The Bureau of Land Management issued a congressionally mandated study today of oil and gas on 99 million acres of federal lands that are estimated to contain 21 billion barrels of oil and 187 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The report -- a revision of a 2003 study -- finds 51 percent of the oil and 27 percent of the gas on these lands are closed to leasing. Three percent of the oil and 13 percent of the gas are available under standard leasing terms. Forty-six percent of the oil and 60 percent of the gas are available but subject to various restrictions, such as seasonal drilling limits, according to BLM.

The report finds that 24 percent of the acreage studied is accessible for oil and gas development under standard lease terms and 30 percent is accessible with further restrictions, while 46 percent is not accessible. The 99 million acres account for about three quarters of the onshore federal oil and gas resources, the agency reported. BLM's earlier study looked at 59 million acres of federal lands.

"This is a more complete and accurate picture than our previous inventory," said BLM Director Kathleen Clarke in a prepared statement. "This kind of nationwide comparison will help us plan for domestic oil and gas development on public lands in a way that protects the environment. Secure and affordable domestic energy, and healthy natural landscapes are important for the quality of life in this country."

The report surveyed 11 areas total, including Alaska's North Slope, a host of regions in the West such as Uinta-Piceance Basin and the Greater Green River Basin, the Black Warrior basin in Mississippi and Alabama, as well as the Appalachian Basin, among others.

Areas in Alaska, the East and two Western regions -- the Wyoming Thrust Belt and the Denver Basin -- were not included in an earlier 2003 version of the study. A large amount of the oil listed as off limits is found in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

New methodology

The updated study also uses a different methodology that Congress required in last year's energy bill. The new report, in assessing areas that are available but with limitations, considered restrictions attached to drilling permits, while the 2003 study "only considered restrictions on the actual leases," BLM said. Also, the new report excludes "proved reserves" while adding reserves growth.

The various differences paint a picture of greater restrictions than did the 2003 report. That study, which looked at 59 million acres in the West (which were also included in the new study), found a far smaller percentage of the oil and gas surveyed was restricted.

Looking at the five Rocky Mountain areas surveyed in each report, the 2003 version found 57 percent of the oil and 62 percent of the gas accessible under standard lease terms, 26 percent of the oil and 24 percent of the gas accessible with restrictions, and 17 percent of the oil and 14 percent of the gas off limits.

The revised version finds just 18 percent of the oil in these regions fully available, while 69 percent is subject to restrictions and 13 percent is fully off limits. With respect to gas, the new version finds 21 percent fully available under standard lease terms, 65 percent available with restrictions, and the same 14 percent completely off limits.

Industry sees need for new access

Richard Ranger of the American Petroleum Institute said the report is a "valuable reenforcement" of industry's contention that too many areas are off limits or subject to major restrictions -- especially in the Rocky Mountain West.

"It is going to merit careful attention by our elected representatives," Ranger said.

"Sound energy policy should balance conservation, which we support, with access to new sources," Ranger continued. "We have a supply problem that affects price and affects our economy, and we believe, based on an initial review, we believe this report goes a long way toward documenting a key supply problem."

Mike Linn, chairman of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), said in a prepared statement, "There is enough onshore oil and natural gas available in the United States to significantly alleviate the burden on American consumers while strengthening our energy security. However, these public resources are not accessible because regulatory barriers and antiquated policies prevent the responsible development of these resources."

But Peter Morton, an economist with The Wilderness Society, said BLM failed to look at what resources would be economical to produce.

"In most cases it is the economics making this stuff inaccessible, not the regulations," Morton said. "Once again they are asking the wrong questions."

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