Feds: Lift oil, gas restrictions Wednesday, May 21, 2008 9:59 PM MDT LANDER -- Bush administration officials released a report Wednesday indicating that huge amounts of America's oil and gas reserves on public lands are inaccessible to producers. And they argued that it doesn't have to stay that way. Citing record-high gasoline prices and a need for greater energy independence, officials with the U.S. Department of the Interior said the nation needs to better utilize its "vast untapped oil and natural gas resources" buried under federal lands. As required by congressional energy policy legislation passed in 2000 and 2005, the Bureau of Land Management has completed the third stage of a survey cataloguing the total oil and gas reserves on federal lands in the United States -- and the percentages of those resources currently inaccessible because of environmental and other legal restrictions. In Wyoming, a diverse coalition of citizens and elected officials -- including Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal and Republican U.S. Sen. John Barrasso -- continues to fight to keep the Wyoming Range off-limits to oil and gas developers, just as the BLM pushes for fewer restrictions nationwide. "Public lands have a significant role to play in meeting our domestic energy needs securely and affordably," BLM Director Jim Caswell said in a prepared statement Wednesday. Caswell indicated that new technology and energy development techniques such as directional drilling and strategic pad placement have made some environmental restrictions no longer necessary, or at least in need of revision. According to the BLM's new study, on public lands, almost two-thirds of America's potential onshore oil reserves and 41 percent of its natural gas are inaccessible to producers because of legal restrictions. The survey looked at 279 million acres of land currently managed by federal agencies, and determined there is an estimated 31 billion barrels of oil and 231 trillion cubic feet of natural gas under the surface. The United States imports about 10 million barrels of oil per day, Assistant Interior Secretary Stephen Allred said. "If we want to lower the cost of energy, we must be willing to use our own energy resources as part of a balanced and rational energy policy," Allred said. The report drew harsh criticism from some lawmakers and conservation groups, who called it another ploy by the Bush administration to open up public lands in order to please the energy industry. Linda Baker, coordinator for the Upper Green River Valley Coalition, said relatively unrestricted drilling in western Wyoming's Jonah and Pinedale Anticline natural gas fields has already compromised the health of people by creating elevated ozone levels and contaminating the groundwater. "It is clear we physically cannot drill our way to energy independence, especially not with natural gas," Baker said. "The BLM is attempting to directly link exorbitant gas prices with a failure to drill every last acre of American soil. Please. Americans are not that stupid." 'Wyoming has done its share' Asked about restrictions on drilling in Wyoming, specifically, the BLM's Allred said relative to other states, Wyoming has "not had a significant amount of area that has been restricted." Richard Watson, a senior physical scientist and the BLM's technical leader on the survey, said most of the untapped reserves noted in the report are in the Western states, with a majority of the oil on the North Slope of Alaska and a significant portion of the gas in southwest Wyoming. More than 40 percent of the natural gas nationwide is considered inaccessible due to restrictions, but in most locations in Wyoming, the BLM classifies less than 30 percent of the resource "inaccessible." "Wyoming has certainly done its share in trying to provide energy relief for the country," Allred said. When that comment was relayed to Freudenthal, the governor said, according to his press secretary, Cara Eastwood, "He's right. Wyoming has done its share in providing energy for the nation." The governor had no further comment on the new BLM report, she said, other than to reaffirm that he has not changed his view on the need to protect the Wyoming Range "and other special places in Wyoming from further energy development." But Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said making the entire Wyoming Range off-limits to energy development runs contrary to the nation's interest in working toward energy independence. While the Cowboy State can't accomplish that goal alone, Hinchey said, energy development here has to be a significant piece of the puzzle. "To take away that entire range, 1.2 million acres, doesn't bode very well for helping the nation meet its energy needs," he said. Contrary to claims made by some critics of the nation's recent energy legislation, if some of the restrictions were lifted nationwide, and if producers were allowed more access to public lands for exploration and production, domestic production could help reduce oil and natural gas prices in the future, Hinchey said. "If you can find it and develop it, and you're allowed to do that, then absolutely we could reduce costs for natural gas and/or oil -- either one," he said.