The federal government has leased 229 million acres of public and private land to producers in 12 western states for oil and natural gas drilling since 1982, an area greater than the combined size of Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, according to a study released Tuesday by a Washington, DC-based environmental group. But only a fraction of the land (13%) ever produced oil or natural gas.

Despite producers’ claims to the contrary, the Bush administration has increased land access to the energy industry during the past four years, removing barriers to oil and gas development on 44.6 million acres in the 12 western states, said the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in its 60-plus page study. The Clinton administration, in contrast, closed off 65 million acres to energy drilling

But despite this broad access to more than 200 million acres, the oil and gas industry has produced only enough energy from the land to satisfy 53 days of U.S. oil consumption and 221 days of natural gas consumption, noted the EWG, based on its analysis of well-by-well oil and gas production records that it obtained this month under the Freedom of Information Act.

Moreover, a recent federal government estimate “found that the five most oil- and gas-rich basins in the western U.S. contain [only] about a 280-day supply of oil and an eight-year supply of natural gas at current rates of consumption,” the EWG said.

The study attempts to debunk producers’ claims that access to federal lands in the West is restricted, and geologists’ claims that the resource potential of the basins in the Rocky Mountain region is prolific.”The records don’t show an area that been restricted [in leasing]. The evidence doesn’t support that theme,” said EWG spokesman John Corsiglia.

An Interior Department report, which was conducted at the direction of Congress, “told us there was a great deal of oil and gas [resources] in those basins,” noted Patty Morrison, principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management.

The five basins contain an estimated 139 Tcf of natural gas — enough to heat the 55 million homes nationwide that use gas for more than 29 years, according to Interior calculations. The basins cited are the Paradox/San Juan Basin in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico; the Uinta/Piceance Basins in Colorado and Utah; the Greater Green Basin in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah; the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming; and the Montana Thrust Belt in Montana.

The Interior study, issued in January 2003, also found that up to 64% of the surface land in the basins was available for leasing. An estimated 39% of the surface (containing 63% of the gas resource) was open to producers, with standard lease stipulations that are designed to protect air, water, wildlife and historic and cultural resources as well as reclamation. About 25% of the surface (containing 25% of the gas resource) was open, but had greater lease restrictions (such as seasonal restrictions). And 36% of the surface, with 12% of the gas resources, was closed to leasing, according to the agency.

While many lands are open to leasing, “there are more than 1,000 possible lease stipulations that could prevent development,” noted the Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents independent oil and gas producers.

Interior said leasing activity fell during the Bush administration. In the first three years of Bush’s term, there was a 10.2% decline in the total number of acres leased and a 24.2% decrease in the number of leases issued compared to the last three years of the Clinton administration, the agency said. However, there was a 34% jump in the number of well permits issued by the current administration. The spurt followed Congress’s call for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to reduce the backlog of permits that resulted from a two-year moratorium related to the Powder River land-use plan.

All in all, “oil and gas leasing and production are occurring on a small fraction of public lands and are not the dominant use of those lands,” Interior said. “BLM manages 262 million acres of surface and 700 million acres of minerals…[But] less than one percent of BLM’s surface acreage or the federal mineral acreage have oil and gas production ongoing.”

There are approximately 55,000 producing oil and gas wells on public lands today, the agency noted.

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