Off-Limits Energy Supplies

By Lieberman, Ben | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 22, 2006 | Go to article overview

Off-Limits Energy Supplies


Lieberman, Ben, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Good news: The more we look for oil and natural gas in the United States, the more we find. That might even be great news -- if so much of that energy weren't out of reach.

According to a new Interior Department report, substantial onshore deposits of energy exist on federal lands. A companion study of offshore energy reserves released earlier this year reached the same conclusion.

But both reports found that much of this energy is either explicitly off-limits or hampered by regulatory constraints that effectively make it so. At least part of the solution to high oil and natural gas prices lies right under our feet. But Congress has failed to change the laws and regulations that keep this domestic energy locked up.

Federal lands are critical because most of America's onshore energy is in the West and in Alaska, where more than half the land is under federal control.

How much energy are we talking about? The federal lands studied are "estimated to contain 187 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 21 billion barrels of oil, which represents 76 percent of onshore federal oil and gas resources," the Interior Department found.

Some perspective: That 187 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is enough to supply all of America's households for 39 years; 21 billion barrels of oil represents more than 30 years' worth of current imports from Saudi Arabia.

At the very least, bringing this energy online would have taken the edge off the price spikes consumers have suffered in recent years. And it could keep a lid on runaway prices for decades to come.

But the Interior Department says we can access just 3 percent of onshore federal oil and 13 percent of onshore federal gas under standard lease terms. In other words, only this tiny percentage of energy can be accessed without serious legal or regulatory impediments. In addition, "46 percent of onshore federal oil and 60 percent of onshore federal gas may be developed subject to additional restrictions, including no surface occupancy."

Most disturbing of all, "51 percent of the oil and 27 percent of the gas are (currently) closed to leasing.

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