Most Americans are familiar with the economic and energy miracle that is the use of hydraulic fracturing to unlock an incredible wealth of natural gas and oil all across the country. The Barnett, Haynesville, Fayetteville, Marcellus, Utica and Niobrara, as well as the Bakken and Eagle Ford, deposits are producing energy, providing jobs and pumping billions into the nation's economy. They have one feature in common: Only state and private lands are involved despite the fact that federal lands constitute a third of the country.
President Reagan confronted the same unwillingness to use federal lands to produce energy. At that time, it was Jimmy Carter blocking access at the behest of environmental groups. Today, President Obama is doing the same thing. Reagan pushed to permit Americans to discover energy on, in his words, the nation's "federal lands, [which] means it belongs to us — to the people of America." In September 1981, he determined to grant permission to drill on a federal oil and gas lease in Wyoming.
Earlier during the summer of that year, two federal agencies completed months of study of an application for permit to drill on a federal lease in the Bridger-Teton National Forest near Jackson in Teton County. The agencies concluded the application should be granted. Later, Wyoming's congressional delegation was briefed that Interior Secretary James Watt would approve it. Meanwhile, environmental groups were gearing up for a major battle on the issue.
Future Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan, a Democrat, learned the opposition had gone beyond angry words. Death threats had been issued against Mr. Watt, his fraternity brother, threats that Mr. Sullivan thought serious enough to convey directly to Mr. Watt. Then Mr. Watt heard from a unanimous and Republican Wyoming delegation: Deny the drilling permit. When Mr. Watt met with Reagan, the president said the application should be approved. He uttered a rationale that would be famously repeated in his second inaugural address: "If not us, who? If not now, when?"
Today, Reagan would be shocked to learn that the man who was issued a federal lease less than a year after that meeting has to this day never been able to drill. In June 1982, the Bureau of Land Management issued Sidney M. Longwell of Baton Rouge, La., a 6,247-acre lease in the Badger-Two Medicine Area of the Lewis and Clark National Forest in northwestern Montana's Glacier County. In 1983, he assigned the lease to what became Fina Oil and Chemical Co. In October 1983, Fina submitted a drilling-permit application to test the natural-gas potential of that part of the Overthrust Belt. After review in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, 76 separate appeals, and a ruling by the Interior Board of Land Appeals; the Bureau of Land Management, in consultation with the U.S. Forest Service; the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks; and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, approved the application in 1985, in 1987, in 1991, and finally in January 1993.
In April 1993, seven environmental groups filed a lawsuit challenging the drilling-permit application. U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, introduced legislation to prevent use of the application. Then, in June 1993, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt suspended the lease, purportedly to await congressional action. In 1994 and 1995, he extended the suspension for the same reason. In 1996, he continued the suspension, purportedly to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act. In 1997, he extended the act-related suspension and, in 1998, he continued it indefinitely.
In the face of the interminable delay, Fina assigned its lease and drilling-permit application rights back to Mr. Longwell in 1999. In July 2004, he assigned his rights to his company, Solenex LLC, which in May asked that the suspension be lifted. The request was denied. In June, Mr. Longwell sued Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and others.
Reagan had it right. He concluded the federal government was "anxious to lock up this land" because of "a fear that more [discoveries] will be made." The Obama administration is expected to answer for itself next week in its response to Solenex's complaint.
William Perry Pendley, a lawyer, is president of Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver and author of "Sagebrush Rebel: Reagan's Battle With Environmental Extremists and Why It Matters Today" (Regnery, 2013).