Q: Should Congress Allow More Drilling for Gas Deposits on Federal Lands? NO: More Drilling on Public Lands Would Do Little to Answer Long-Term Energy Challenges

Article excerpt

Byline: William H. Meadows, SPECIAL TO INSIGHT

There's an old saying that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In the case of this country's recent energy woes, the oil and gas industry and its allies in the current administration seem to have only one tool in their toolbox a drilling rig and they see places to drill where the rest of us see wildlife refuges, ranches, homes and spectacular landscapes worth protecting.

Throughout all the confusing back-and-forth about the so-called natural-gas "crisis" and the recent electrical blackout in the Northeast, the only constant has been the absurd assertion by the oil and gas industry and its government allies that we should open environmentally sensitive areas of the public lands and weaken environmental safeguards imposed on federal leases. In reality, more drilling on public lands in the Rocky Mountain West and opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (the Arctic Refuge) in Alaska would come at a high environmental and financial cost and do ittle to answer our country's long-term energy challenges.

In the Rocky Mountain West, industry and government continually have griped that too much federal land is off limits for drilling and too many restrictions apply to drilling on public lands.

But the Bush administration's own report, issued in January, indicates that the opposite is true that is, most of the federal oil and gas resources in the region currently are available for leasing and development.

That document, known by energy insiders as the "EPCA [Energy Policy and Conservation Act] report," indicates that 88 percent of the Rocky Mountain West's "technically recoverable" natural-gas resources underlying federal lands already are available for leasing and development. In other words, only 12 percent of federal natural-gas resources lie beneath national parks, wilderness areas and other protected lands. If nonfederal gas resources within the study area are included private, state and tribal about 93 percent of the gas resources in the Rocky Mountain West already are available for development.

The facts also show that leasing and drilling is alive and well on the federal lands of the Rocky Mountain West, nurtured both by the Bush administration's aggressive pro-development policies and current high prices. According to industry sources, drilling activity throughout the United States has increased by more than 30 percent this year alone. Since 2000, industry has received permission to drill more than 10,000 new gas wells on federal lands in the West, and tens of thousands more are planned to be drilled during the next several years.

But that hasn't dissuaded the industry and its allies from aggressively targeting some of America's most majestic remaining landscapes for oil and gas development. In Wyoming, where most of the lands managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) already are available for oil and gas development and where thousands of new wells have been permitted on federal lands during the last five years, the industry has zeroed in on the last remaining undeveloped places in the awesome Red Desert. This is a land of towering buttes, stunning rainbow-colored vistas, seasonal wetlands important for migratory birds, and more than 350 species of wildlife. Conservationists have asked that a portion of the Red Desert be set aside from development, but it appears that the Bush administration intends to devote all of it every last acre to energy development.

The industry and administration like to talk about these proposals as "restoring balance" to the leasing program. But where's the "balance" in leasing every square inch of the Red Desert?

Similarly, north of the Green River in Utah, the 2,000-foot-high escarpment of the Book Cliffs marks the southern perimeter of a 1 million-acre unprotected wilderness of exceptional geographic and biological diversity. …

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