Access to public lands for natural resources
development continues to be a hot-button topic for much of the United
States — but in the Rocky Mountain region, it is becoming a "battleground."
On one side of the struggle are those who believe
the lands are too valuable in environmental, ecological, biological,
recreational or other ways to be subjected to industry exploitation.
Industry spokesmen counter that they are being blocked
from activities despite enormous strides in environmentally sound
operational practices, and despite the fact that the region is valuable
to the country's energy needs because of the rich resources it holds.
A special forum on public lands access in the Rocky
Mountains, sponsored by the Division of Professional Affairs, the
Energy Minerals Division and the Division of Environmental Geosciences,
will be held in Salt Lake City during the AAPG Annual Meeting.
"We are losing ground on the public lands issue,"
said Lee Gerhard who is with the Kansas Geological Survey, vice
president of the DPA and chairman of AAPG's Public Outreach Committee.
"Since those who oppose access for oil and gas operations
on public lands feel they have won on ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge), they are now focusing on the Rocky Mountains in general,"
he said. "You can see this shift in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming
and Montana, where lawsuits aimed at forcing the federal government
to withdraw leases have been filed, and in Utah, where there is
a tremendous amount of activity to prevent entry onto public lands."
Gerhard, a past president of the AAPG Division of
Environmental Geolosciences, concedes that "a large group of people
in this country" want to replace fossil fuels with other technologies.
"There is no question that at some time in the future
we will have to do that," he said, "but driving away 92 to 95 percent
of the nation's energy provided by fossil fuels and other minerals
in the hopes that these other sources can make up the gap is not
The petroleum industry has to bear some responsibility
for the current situation, he added.
"We have allowed ourselves to be tagged with the
perception we use technology of 80 years ago," he said. "We need
to increase public awareness on the strides we have made technologically
and in our business practices to protect and preserve the natural
"Most environmentalists are well meaning people,"
he said, "but we have to ensure that science first and fair reporting
second are part of the process. We have been negligent as an industry
in advancing our case.
"We have always made the assumption that what we
do is so important that nothing will get in the way," he said. "We
realize today that was a strategic error."
Logan MacMillan with Denver-based LiTMus EPO, worked
an area of northeast Utah based on geologic reports generated by
the U.S. Geological Survey and found that the region had significant
potential for natural gas reserves.
Based on his work, MacMillan recruited clients to
stake a lease position and make a gas play. The group accumulated
135,000 acres, but in 1999 Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit
directed his department to reinventory areas that might have wilderness
characteristics in northeast Utah, which culminated in a wilderness
overprint on 85,000 acres of the total MacMillan and his partners
"Ultimately this mid-stream change in the land designation
resulted in the failure of the venture," MacMillian said.
"These lands are still being contested today," he
continued. "It is clear to all of us here in the Rocky Mountain
West that wilderness areas in the region have gone from the high
mountain peaks, where oil and gas potential is relatively low, down
onto the plateaus and into the basins, where oil and gas potential
"We have to fight them on every acre," he said.
Telling the Story
AAPG's Public Outreach Committee and the DPA Governmental
Affairs Committee are "trying … to get the industry's message
"We are interested in working with other organizations
like the American Association of Petroleum Landmen to compile accurate
information on the issue," Gerhard said, "and get that information
into the hands of the public — the people who ultimately will pay,
through higher energy prices, for these public lands access restrictions."
An AAPL task force on access issued a report in 2001
that indicated in the past 20 years access to public lands and offshore
waters has become increasingly more difficult — and often impossible.
The study also said the public is unaware of how
this lack of access to the potential supply of hydrocarbons affects
the supply of oil and gas to the marketplace and raises the prices
they must pay.
"Continued economic growth, as well as concerns about
changes in air quality and climate, favors the continued expansion
of natural gas demand," the report stated. "The availability of
natural gas at competitive prices is a function of the natural gas
supply, which in the future will be increasingly a function of access
to federal lands and waters.
"The emphasis on natural gas is good news for the
economy, the environment and society as a whole."
Much of the future supply of natural gas remains
to be discovered. According to studies by the Potential Gas Committee,
the USGS and the National Petroleum Council, the magnitude of the
undiscovered natural gas resource would last for up to 50 years
at current rates of production.
The natural gas reserves from wells currently producing
will last for less than 10 years, said the AAPL report.
"High volumes of natural gas remain to be discovered
onshore in the Rocky Mountain region, in Alaska, and offshore in
the eastern and western United States, the eastern Gulf of Mexico
and offshore Alaska," the AAPL report said. "Over 95 percent of
the natural gas-prone resources from these areas are owned by the
federal and state governments, with most federally owned."
A National Petroleum Council 1999 study estimated
that 40 percent of the potential resource on Rocky Mountain federal
lands is either closed to exploration or is operating under restrictive
provisions, representing 137 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Parts of the U.S. offshore that are closed to development holds
another 76 trillion cubic feet.
The AAPL outlined some of the challenges pertaining
to access to public lands. These include:
- No comprehensive and complete inventory
of U.S. federal lands exists.
(The recently released Department of Interior's Energy Policy
Conservation Act study is a first step toward inventorying some
federal lands, however. The study compiled data on five basins
in the Rocky Mountains, which AAPL spokesperson Jane Crouch
indicated was an important first step toward a more comprehensive
compilation of federal lands.)
"There is a lack of consistency of interpretation of various
federal land use regulations, especially between the Bureau
of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service and even between
the various local offices of a single federal agency within
a single state," the report said. "Plus, federal managers often
interpret federal land management policies at their own discretion."
The cumbersome permitting and approval
process has become much more complex in the last 20 years, resulting
in increasing costs of natural gas to consumers and delays in
getting natural gas to markets.
The East and West Coast offshore moratorium
was extended by former President Clinton, despite impressive
advances of technology that have made offshore production safer
and cleaner than ever before.
Since 1980, 6.9 billion barrels of oil have been produced
from the outer continental shelf with spillage rates of less
than .001 percent, according to the NPC 1999 study.
Emergence of single use policy on federal
lands as opposed to the historical and legal multiple use policies.
Most energy projects on federal lands
require complex and separate multi-agency permits and numerous
studies, which can result in new project delays of two to four
years in the Rocky Mountain region.
"It is time that an energy policy be put in place to identify
natural gas resources in the United States and the access limitations
to those resources," said the AAPL report. "Then intelligent,
unemotional decisions can be made by government and the public
about accessing our natural resources.
"If the potential gas resources in the U.S. cannot be accessed,"
the report said, "they cannot be counted upon by the U.S. public."