The American Public Gas Association (APGA) praised the Bush administration in a letter to the president on Wednesday for providing leadership in pushing through a new roadless rule governing national forest access and management. APGA estimates the new rule will provide access to as much as 11-23 Tcf of natural gas resources that were previously off limits. However, a Department of Agriculture (USDA) official said it is premature to draw that conclusion.

The natural gas in question is estimated to be on 58.5 million acres of remote national forest lands that could be opened to road building, energy exploration and production if allowed by state governors and the USDA. These national forest lands, most of which are located in Alaska and 11 western states, were barred from road construction and other development by President Clinton in the final days of his administration in 2001. However, the Clinton Administration’s “roadless rule” was struck down by a U.S. District Court in July 2003 and deemed in violation of both the National Environmental Policy Act and the Wilderness Act.

The USDA subsequently developed new rule that allows collaboration with the states on management of inventoried roadless areas. Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary Dave Tenny recently said the new rule allows state governors, in collaboration with USDA, to make “community-by-community” and “case-by-case” decisions on land access.

APGA believes this new rule will prompt state governors to open up more areas to drilling. “APGA’s number one priority is to bring natural gas prices back to an affordable level,” said Bert Kalisch, CEO of APGA, which represents 600 municipally owned and publicly owned gas distribution systems in 36 states. “We believe many important steps must be taken to bring this about — but one critical step is to increase access to domestic gas supplies, including both onshore and offshore resources, and to allow environmentally responsible production.

“The repeal of the roadless rule is a step in the right direction towards correcting [the current natural gas] supply/demand imbalance,” he told the president. “Repeal of this initiative will allow access to much needed domestic natural gas resources.” Kalisch said best case estimates project that the amount of natural gas that could be made accessible by the new rule is 23 Tcf. “This amount is significant in that it represents a great percentage of what our country already plans to import over the next 15 years.”

However, Tenny noted that the new roadless rule is “resource neutral.” It’s just a “process rule,” Tenny said in an interview with NGI. “The outcome on a state-by-state basis has yet to be determined. That will come as a result of governors petitioning us and then [the USDA] working with the states…to determine exactly what’s best and what the final outcome ought to be.

“I do think that the governors will consider all the resource implications of their petitions as will we in working with them.” But it’s premature at this point to say that the new rule will lead to any additional gas supply, he said.

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