U.S. Moves Ahead on Oil, Gas Leases on Public Land

SOURCE: Bureau of Land Management | The Washington Post - November 27, 2008
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 29, 2008

A decision by federal officials this week to press ahead with a controversial sale of oil and gas leases in eastern Utah is stoking the debate over how to balance the nation's needs for fossil fuels against concerns over the environmental impact on iconic national parks and other sensitive areas.

The Bush administration, which has sought to reduce American dependence on imports to meet the continuing demand for oil and gas, has aggressively pushed to open up energy exploration across broad swaths of the West, off both coasts, and in Alaska. But those initiatives regularly stir opposition from both environmentalists and advocates of faster development of alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power.

Over the last four fiscal years, a Washington Post analysis of Bureau of Land Management records shows, the government has dramatically accelerated the pace of awarding oil and gas drilling permits on federal land. The total for the period is nearly triple the number issued in the corresponding years under former President Clinton, and the number of new wells sunk on federal land is more than double Clinton's record over the comparable period.

In the latest skirmish, the bureau announced Tuesday that it will proceed with most of a proposed sale of oil and gas leases on nearly 500 square miles of public land in eastern Utah, which had sparked protests from environmental advocates and National Park Service officials. Opponents fear the drilling activity will damage air quality in several nearby popular national parks.

The lease sales, due to take place next month, could pose a challenge for the incoming Obama administration, which will have to decide shortly after taking office whether to honor the contracts, seek to undo the leases or pay millions in taxpayer dollars to buy them back.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the administration was responding to two realities: the fact that the United States will "be using oil as an energy source for the foreseeable future, the next 50 years, and we want to reduce our dependence on foreign oil because it's a security and economic threat."

"If we're going to do that, we're going to explore where we think the oil is going to be," he said. "It's possible to drill in environmentally sensitive areas in safe ways."

Energy industry experts said the government is providing access to a place that Richard Ranger, a senior policy adviser to the American Petroleum Institute, called "an area of growing promise." Ranger noted that for the past few years the Bureau of Land Management office in Vernal, Utah, has been "one of the five or six most active BLM offices in terms of issuing drilling permits."

Advances in a process called hydraulic fracturing have allowed companies to extract oil and natural gas from areas that were inaccessible in the past. Partly as a result, 40 percent of U.S. gas consumption last year came from wells drilled in the past four to five years.

"It was a combination of economics and better technology so we could go after resources in the West," said Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States.

The rise in energy prices and demand during Bush's tenure has spurred development in both the West and East: In 2007, domestic oil production slightly increased for the first time in years.

Places such as Utah offer huge potential for energy producers, but development there has triggered controversy because of its proximity to some of the nation's most scenic parks and natural monuments. After Park Service officials on Monday identified 93 proposed auction parcels where leasing could jeopardize "air quality, water resources and natural sound," BLM officials announced late the next day that they would defer action on two dozen of those parcels as well as portions of four more, while pressing ahead with more than 210 parcels encompassing 313,000 acres.

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