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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bureau of Land Management

Air Date: Week of

The Bush Administration may need Congressional approval to drill in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but it’s already moving to increase oil and gas production in the lower 48 states. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports from Washington.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The president's energy bill is one of the most contentious issues before the new session of the 107th Congress. The bill stalled in the Senate last year, primarily over whether or not to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. But ANWR isn't the only public land that's being eyed by the Bush Administration for its energy potential. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports on what's at stake in the Lower 48.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Some elements of the president's energy plan, like opening ANWR, require the blessing of Congress, but most need no legislative action, and that includes the president's call for increased oil and gas production on public lands. In the Lower 48 most of this energy is in the West, most of it is natural gas, and most is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM manages more land, 264 million acres to be precise, than any other federal agency. About 10% of those acres are currently leased for energy production. Pete Culp is the BLM's assistant director for Minerals, Realty and Resource Protection.

CULP: Public lands provide 5% of the domestic supply of oil, and 11% of our domestic supply of natural gas, so they are significant, and restrictions that affect the availability of those resources are, therefore, significant and a worthwhile issue to address.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: One recent study by the Energy Department found that access to natural gas on public lands is more restricted than previously thought. The study surveyed the Greater Green River Basin of Wyoming, in Colorado, and found that almost 70% of the area's natural gas is either off-limits or significantly restricted. The administration is compiling similar data on all public lands. It's in the final stages of creating an inventory to show not only how much energy is out there, but how much of it is restricted and to what extent. Pete Culp says he hopes that study will result in a definitive map so the administration can develop land where appropriate.

CULP: We need to be precise in terms of what is realistic for industry. If seasonal wildlife restrictions are in place, for example, for nine months of the year, is it practical for industry to develop an area or not? And all that is part of what we need to look at in the study.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: But the BLM isn't waiting for the final results to start moving on the energy front. The agency estimates three-quarters of its land management plans are out-of-date, and it's trying to expedite these plans in areas where energy potential is greatest. It's working with the White House to sort out some of the bureaucratic snags holding up specific energy projects across the West, and it's looking at ways to make the entire lease and permit process more efficient. How, for example, to cut redundant work when two agencies share jurisdiction over the same project? The BLM is trying to undo the kind of red tape that's frustrated industry for years.
Mark Murphy owns Strata Production Company, an oil and gas business in Roswell, New Mexico.

MURPHY: I guess I can best liken it to going down and buying a car. It would be very much like getting an oil and gas lease, and the dealer or, in this case, the Federal government, will take your money and they'll sell you the car. But when you go out and you want to get in and drive the car, they say "I'm sorry, I can't give you the keys." So, you're really not able to enjoy the benefits of ownership.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Murphy says he knows the Bush Administration wants to make it easier for companies like his to have real and profitable access to federal lands, but he says that won't happen until the message from Washington reaches land managers at local BLM offices. Right now, Murphy says, those offices are dominated by an anti-development mood left over from the Clinton era.

MURPHY: So, it's not a question of policy. I think it's more a question of culture.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Environmental activists see it differently. They say the Bush Administration is already taking short-cuts in its quest to produce more energy on public lands. Chuck Clusen, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the administration is targeting habitat that's crucial for a diverse range of animals and plants.

CLUSEN: Red Rock, country of Utah, many areas which actually are proposed for wilderness by various members of Congress--the greater Yellowstone ecosystem in Wyoming, the Red Desert, also in Wyoming, the whole northern part of the Rocky Mountains in Montana, which has been referred to as the crown of the continent's ecosystem.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The NRDC has sued the BLM over 12 leases the agency recently approved in southern Utah alone. More broadly, environmental groups warn the administration will undermine wilderness designations and the Endangered Species Act, as it opens more land to development. Chuck Clusen says the public needs to realize the president's energy plan isn't waiting for Congressional approval. It's already under way.

CLUSEN: They are already resulting in actions which are harming or degrading the environmental, and in particular special places that many people care about. And they are expediting and letting things sort of rip, if you will, and giving short shrift to doing these things very thoroughly, and then, they are really--they're going into it with their mind made up.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The BLM says it's not compromising on environmental protection as it seeks to develop more acres. And agency officials are quick to point out, in addition to fossil fuels, they are also looking to increase production of renewable energy on public lands. In either case, they say, turning leases into actual kilowatts takes time, all the more reason the nation must move quickly. Eric Kaarlela heads up the BLM's National Energy office.

KAARLELA: It's very important that, if we're going to try and meet some of our energy needs in the country, we move right away rather than waiting for several years, because it may be 10 or 15 years before that comes in. And if we have an energy crisis in the interim, we will not be able to bring that energy on board right away.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Kaarlela says the agency is aggressively encouraging local land managers to feel comfortable making exceptions to restrictions on energy development. Last month, his office sent out a memo directing field staff to report back on any management decision that may adversely impact energy development in the area. And, in the coming year, the BLM expects to process almost twice the number of applications for drilling permits as it did in 2001. For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum in Washington.



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