Natural gas and oil drilling on federal lands across the Rocky Mountains could increase by more than 160% over the next 20 years in part because of pro-industry regulations enacted during President Bush's administration, according to a report by the Wilderness Society.

A review of drilling planned across the region by the Washington, DC-based environmental group found that more than 126,000 new gas and oil wells have been approved or are under review for federal lands in Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, Utah and New Mexico. Wyoming would have the most activity over the next two decades with about 58,000 new wells. By comparison, the five states together had 77,000 wells producing gas or oil earlier this year.

A similar analysis in 2006 found 118,730 wells were planned. The increase in 2007 follows new drilling proposals in Wyoming and Colorado, according to the Wilderness Society.

The report analyzed drilling plans under consideration or already approved by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service. Wells proposed for private or state lands were not considered. According to the Wilderness Society, exploration likely would expand in some of the most environmentally sensitive terrain of the Rockies, including Colorado's Roan Plateau, the Upper Green River Basin in Wyoming and Montana's portion of the Powder River Basin.

"The impacts of this type of development would be truly staggering...[and] would likely well exceed one million acres," said the Wilderness Society's Nada Culver, who co-authored the report. "This is the time to take a step back and consider what current levels of drilling are already doing to our public and private lands."

The Bush administration's "lease and drill everything" policy "is aimed at opening some of our most fragile places to oil and gas development," said the report. It identified 17 public lands that it does not believe should be developed, outlines the threat to these areas and what should be done to protect them.

Energy executives argue that any retreat from U.S. exploration could undermine domestic efforts to become more energy independent.

"The fact that energy companies are working with the federal government to ensure our nation has an adequate supply of energy for years to come...that seems like a good thing," said Marc Smith, executive director of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States. He noted that the Rockies now produces about 25% of U.S. gas and 9% of the country's oil. Smith said the report's numbers are a best-case scenario, adding that "if the Wilderness Society has anything to do with it, the number will be much less."

The numbers cited by the Wilderness Society are "at the high end of what is even possible," said BLM's Michelle Barret. She said many of the projections cited included long-range scoping documents and planning documents that are not final. Environmental groups, she said, want to imply that all of the wells proposed would be approved and drilled. "I'm confident that's not going to happen."

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