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Independent Producers Champion Administration's Roadless Rule Decision

Independent oil and natural gas producers last Thursday championed the Agriculture Department's adoption of a final rule that they say will open up 58.5 million acres of remote national forest lands to road building, energy exploration and production and other development.

"We think this is an important step to correct the [Clinton administration] policy that tried to subvert the law," said Jeff Eshelman, spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA).

The national forest lands, most of which are located in Alaska and 11 western states, had been barred from road building and other development by President Clinton in the final days of his administration in 2001. The lands were projected to hold 11 Tcf of domestic natural gas, according to the group of independent producers.

But energy producers and other developers shouldn't expect too much from the new rule, according to Dave Tenny, deputy under secretary for resources and environment at the Agriculture Department. The likelihood of developing any significant portion of roadless areas is a "remote prospect, with or without the rulemaking," he told NGI. There were never any plans to "exploit vast areas" of roadless lands, Tenny said.

The rule covers about 20% of the land base in the United States, and approximately one-third of the national forest lands overseen by the Forest Service.

The rule would permit state governors to petition the federal government to either keep their wilderness lands roadless or open them up to development and other activities. This approach was aimed at promoting greater cooperation between individual governors and the federal government on this issue.

Governors can submit petitions within 18 months to stop road building on some of the 34.3 million acres where it would now be allowed or request that new forest management plans be drafted to permit the construction on the remaining 24.2 million acres, Congressional Green Sheets reported in its Friday edition. The secretary of the Agriculture Department would have 180 days to respond after receiving a petition.

The final rule was backed by Republicans, but attacked by environmentalists and Democrats as a boon for industry.

The Bush administration proposed the rule in the summer of 2003, after a U.S. District Court judge in Wyoming found the Clinton roadless rule ban to be unlawful and ordered the rule to be permanently enjoined. The case was appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, where it currently is pending.

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