Study details curbs on oil and gas drilling

Study details curbs on oil and gas drilling

About half the oil and more than a quarter of the natural gas beneath 99 million acres of federal land are off-limits to drilling, the Bush administration says in a report that had been sought by industry to highlight environmental and other hurdles to development.

But environmentalists said the new study gives an impression that more land is closed to energy development than really is the case.

Just 3 percent of the oil and 13 percent of the gas under federal land is accessible under standard lease terms that require only basic protections for the environment and cultural resources, said the survey, ordered last year by Congress.

An additional 46 percent of the oil and 60 percent of the gas “may be developed subject to additional restrictions” such as bans to protect animals and sensitive terrain during parts of the year.

The revised inventory, released Tuesday by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, is starkly different from a study done three years ago. That version, which covered 59 million acres in the Rocky Mountains, estimated more than 80 percent of oil and gas was accessible, although in some cases subject to curbs.

Energy companies disliked the earlier inventory because, they argued, it suggested more oil and gas was accessible, even when restrictions made drilling difficult or impossible. They lobbied Congress to force a change in the way the inventory is taken.

Language was inserted with little fanfare into energy legislation last year.

The BLM was required to include much more land, while excluding from the inventory lease areas where drilling already was under way. The agency also was directed to take into account seasonal drilling bans to protect animal habitat, and consider such leases as significantly restricted.

All these changes reduced the percentage of oil and gas resources that can be viewed as open for energy development.

For example, the 2003 report found that 26 percent of the oil and 24 percent of the natural gas in the Rocky Mountains was subject to some restriction. The new survey says access in the Rockies is limited to 69 percent of the oil and 65 percent of the gas.

The new inventory covers 99 million acres — 40 million more than the 2003 report — from Alaska to the Appalachian Mountains. The area is estimated to hold 187 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 21 billion barrels of oil, or 76 percent of onshore federal oil and gas resources.

The amount of oil considered accessible without limits declined by about two-thirds from 2.2 billion barrels to 743 million barrels under the new inventory. Accessible natural gas was cut by about the same proportion, from 87 trillion cubic feet to 25 trillion cubic feet.

To put those numbers in perspective, the U.S. imports about 12.4 million barrels of oil a day and uses about 21 million. It produces about 20 trillion cubic feet of natural gas annually.

Environmentalists, who had used the 2003 study to argue against drilling in sensitive wild areas, said the BLM often waives the seasonal curbs that the inventory cites as evidence of an area not being accessible.

Industry officials said the new survey gives a more accurate view of the hurdles they face in tapping domestic energy resources.

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