The federal government has leased 229 million acres in 12 western states for energy development since 1982, an area equal to the combined acreage of Montana, Utah and Wyoming, according to a report issued yesterday by an environmental group.
The study, by the Environmental Working Group, was based on an analysis of 125 million records from the Interior Department; the group said it is the most comprehensive overview to date of how recent administrations have opened up public land to oil and gas drilling. It is also part of an effort by environmentalists to highlight the Bush administration's promotion of energy development on federal lands.
The Rocky Mountain Front is among the areas the Bureau of Land Management has reviewed for gas drilling.
(Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)
While administrations from both parties have leased federal property for energy exploration, the Bush administration has removed barriers to drilling on 45 million acres in 12 western states since 2001, while the Clinton administration put 64 million acres off-limits between 1993 and 2000, the study said. Much of that difference stems from President Bill Clinton's decision to bar development on 42 million acres of roadless areas on federal land.
Mike Casey, a spokesman for the environmental group, said the study contradicts pronouncements such as the one Vice President Cheney made earlier this month in Arkansas, that "large parts of the Rocky Mountain West are off-limits."
"They're not blocked," Casey said of oil and gas companies. "They own the West."
Rebecca Watson, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said the report was a rehash of government statistics aimed at fostering the perception that the government is "leasing every single acre."
"The reality is not so," she said.
She said the government, which has been ordered by Congress since 1987 to hold quarterly lease sales on public land, leases 41 million acres. She added that Bureau of Land Management land disturbed by energy exploration amounts to just 1 percent of the bureau's 262 million acres.
Watson said the administration has issued 10 percent fewer leases than the Clinton administration for a total of 24 percent fewer acres, though the number of drilling permit approvals and new holes drilled have increased significantly under President Bush.
Interior officials and environmentalists also differ on the West's total energy potential: The department has estimated there are enough natural gas resources in five western basins to power 56 million U.S. homes for nearly 30 years. But Environmental Working Group officials say the bureau's Minerals Management Service has estimated that over the past 15 years, with access to more than 200 million acres, the oil and gas industries have produced 53 days' worth of oil and 221 days' worth of natural gas.
American Petroleum Institute spokesman Bill Bush said that while his group did not have a chance to review the report in detail, "it's important for oil and gas companies to have increased access to federal lands in the West that show promise for energy development."
"Congress set aside these lands in part to help meet the nation's energy needs," he added.