Rockies an Access 'Battleground'

Off Limits for Exploration

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 wise."

The petroleum industry has to bear some responsibility for the current situation, he added.

Image Caption

Everyone has an opinion on land use in the American West.
Photos courtesy of Legacy Energy.

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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 wise."

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 environment.

"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."

An Example

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 had leased.

"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 is high.

"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 out.

"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.

Challenging Situations

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."