JENNIFER TALHELM Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON About half the oil and more than a quarter of the natural gas inventoried on 99 million acres of federal land are off limits to drilling because of significant environmental and other restrictions, the government said today in a new report the energy industry sought as part of a campaign to win access to it. Only 3 percent of the oil and 13 percent of gas under federal lands is accessible under standard lease terms requiring only basic protections for the environment and cultural resources, according to the new survey released Tuesday. Technically, the study was ordered by Congress. But the industry wanted it to help make a point. Another 46 percent of the oil and 60 percent of the gas “may be developed subject to additional restrictions including no surface occupancy” or bans during part of the year to protect animal habitat or sensitive terrain, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management said in the report. While not technically off limits, oil and gas companies have contended that those restrictions often make actual development difficult or impossible. In the new inventory, the amount of oil considered accessible without limit declined by about two-thirds from 2.2 billion barrels to 743 million barrels. Accessible natural gas was cut by about the same proportion from 87 trillion cubic feet to 25 trillion cubic feet. The new survey significantly changes how the Interior Department categorizes federal resources, expanding the geographic areas covered and as well as land viewed as having restrictions. It expands the definition of lease restrictions to include those granted conditionally. Included in the old survey but omitted from the new inventory are federal lands with “proved reserves,” those already drilled and not to constraints on access. For example, the 2003 report found that only 26 percent of the oil and and 24 percent of the natural gas in the Rocky Mountains were subject to some restrictions. The new survey says access in the Rockies is limited to 69 percent of the oil and 65 percent of the gas. Industry leaders lobbied for the changes, arguing that an earlier 2003 inventory showing more than 80 percent of federally owned oil and gas as available for leasing ignored conditions and requirements that in many cases prevent actual development. The earlier survey looked at only 59 million acres from New Mexico to Montana and didn’t take into account vast areas in Alaska that are off limits. The new one covers 99 million acres from Alaska to the Appalachian Mountains. Examined for the first time are three oil and gas basins in the Southeast and the Appalachian Mountains and a basin in northern Alaska, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is believed to have the largest untapped U.S. oil field one where leasing is not allowed. Neither survey examined oil or gas resources offshore, including in the Gulf of Mexico. BLM Director Kathleen Clarke called the new inventory “a more complete and accurate picture.” “This kind of nationwide comparison will help us plan for domestic oil and gas development on public lands in a way that protects the environment,” she said. But environmentalists, who had used the 2003 study to argue against drilling in sensitive wild areas, said they feared the new study would make it appear industry has less access than it does. “I hope we won’t have an example of the Bush administration interfering with science for political reasons, but I’m afraid that’s what we’re going to be seeing here,” said Dave Alberswerth of the Wilderness Society. Industry officials said the new survey gives a more accurate view of the hurdles they face in tapping domestic energy recources.