- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2003

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 16 (UPI) — A long-awaited survey of the oil and natural gas reserves available in five major Western energy-producing regions was released Thursday and could be a pivotal resource in future debates over opening protected lands to development.

The Bureau of Land Management concluded that 12 percent of the recoverable natural gas and 15 percent of the oil under 59 million acres of federal lands in the basins are in areas that are closed to development.

"This report represents the first time Congress has asked for a study that provides not only an estimate of oil and gas resources and reserves, but also information on any constraints that may limit development of these energy resources," said Assistant Interior Secretary Rebecca Watson.

The report was launched during the Clinton administration under the 2000 Energy Policy and Conservation Act so that lawmakers would have an up-to-date guide to not only how much energy is available in the five basins, but also the regulatory status of the lands and its geological features.

"This inventory is not a decision-making document," Watson pointed out. "It is a planning tool for Congress that identifies areas of high and low oil and gas potential — and the nature of constraints to the development of those resources in the basins in the interior West."

The survey covered five geological basins totaling 104 million acres in largely remote areas of the West. The basins studied include the Paradox/San Juan Basins in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico; the Uinta/Piceance Basins in Colorado and Utah; the Greater Green River Basin in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah; the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming; and the Montana Thrust Belt in Montana.

Of those 104 million acres, 59 million acres are federal land. A total of 36 percent of the federal lands is closed to development and encompasses 12 percent of the recoverable gas reserves and 15 percent of the oil reserves.

"An estimated 57 percent of oil and 63 percent of gas are available under standard stipulations, and only 15 percent of oil and 12 percent of gas are totally unavailable," the BLM concluded. "The remaining oil and gas are available with increasing restrictions on development. Land that is closed to development contains comparatively little oil and gas potential."

Since most of the nation's natural gas is domestically produced, increased petroleum production in the West is a high priority for the energy industry, for states that collect royalties on energy production, and for the Bush administration, which has been advocating increased energy self-reliance.

"This report is an important tool for showing us where some of our nation's greatest oil and natural reserves are located and what limitations are placed on accessing these resources," said Diemer True, a Wyoming oilman and chairman of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

Environmentalists were cautious about the report shortly after its release. A statement from the Wilderness Society said the survey should have taken economic factors into account so that protected lands are not opened up to new drilling rigs that fail to produce much energy.

"The Wilderness Society is concerned that the BLM will rely on technically recoverable resources rather than economically recoverable resources as recommended by the Congressional Research Service as the basis for public policy," the organization said.

True indicated that energy producers were also not so much interested in throwing open closed areas as they were making it easier to operate on tracts where development is allowed, but tied up by the red tape of the permit process.

"We need to address the additional impediments to exploration and production that exist on lands available for leasing, while examining the reasons all other lands are restricted from leasing," said True. "On the lands that are not currently open, our policymakers and interested communities should determine if needed natural gas can be obtained while ensuring the protection of sensitive areas."

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