Energy illusions

A new report seems to show that more land is off-limits to energy exploration, but appearances can be deceiving

 

This fall, when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management published an inventory of gas and oil available for drilling on public lands, the industry raised a stink. Compared to a similar 2003 report, the new inventory appeared to say that huge quantities of gas and oil had been put off-limits by government regulation.

The oil and gas industry pointed to the report, known officially as the Energy Policy and Conservation Act PHASE II Report, as proof that restrictions on leasing and drilling should be eased. There’s plenty of gas and oil under public lands, said Mike Linn of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, but the “resources are not accessible because regulatory barriers and antiquated policies prevent the responsible development of these resources.” Indeed, at first glance it seemed that additional restrictions had been put on 62 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in just three years.

But many of the numbers — and apparent differences between the two reports — result from subtle shifts in categorization and report methodology, not from actual changes. For example, the 2006 report excluded proved reserves — oil and gas that is known to exist and be recoverable — and included as “restrictions” limits on precisely where on a specific parcel a company can place a drill pad.

“(The 2006) report is a paper exercise and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) exercise. It’s not representative of what’s actually happening on the ground,” says Steve Belinda, a former wildlife biologist at the Pinedale, Wyo., BLM office who is now energy policy initiative manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Generally, the gas and oil available in the Rocky Mountain West for drilling in 2003 is still available today. In some cases, such as in the heavily drilled Paradox and San Juan basins in the Four Corners region, more land is now open under the least restrictive categorization, standard lease terms, than in 2003.

Of the five Western basins included in both reports, the Greater Green River Basin contains the most oil and gas. High Country News took a close look at what changed, and what didn’t, in regulation of the basin between 2003 and 2006. As is shown below, some areas that were once off-limits have been opened up, and other apparent changes between the 2003 and 2006 reports turn out not to be changes at all.

 

The author is an HCN intern.