Liberal Environmentalists Impede Natural Gas Development

Published August 1, 2003

On June 10, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan testified to Congress that environmental and energy concerns could cause “debilitating spikes” in the price of natural gas of more than $7.50 per million Btus. His comments generated national attention, but the problem is not new.

Three years ago, an independent petroleum geologist from Connecticut, speaking for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, gave similar congressional testimony. He too predicted a natural gas price spike of more than $7.50 per million Btus. As a result, he projected, “residential gas consumers can expect a $200 to $300 increase in their winter gas-heating bills[, which] some can ill afford.”

The geologist also noted America “has abundant natural gas resources to fuel the country well into the 21st Century.” And he also declared that, despite abundant supplies of clear-burning natural gas, “the public has not had the will to permit access to the huge gas potential of its undeveloped public lands.”

Rocky Mountain Bounty Thwarted

The onshore public land to which the Connecticut geologist referred lies within the Rocky Mountains and contains nearly 140 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

In a January 2003 report to Congress, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham noted 40 percent of that land is legally off-limits to gas development. And even the 60 percent considered available is likely an over-estimate of how much could be leased for development. Those lands must pass through the statutory, regulatory, and litigation gauntlet that is federal land use planning and environmental review. The process takes years to yield a decision, and any decision would inevitably be subjected to years of appeals and litigation.

Once a lease has been approved and is open for bidding, the assault on natural gas development begins in earnest. One leader of an anti-development environmental group threatened to sue anyone who “bid[s] on a lease on public land.”

The ability of liberal environmental groups to thwart gas development is not limited to appeals and litigation. Stacks of environmental statutes, regulations, and judicial rulings–most the result of lobbying and litigating by these groups–impose severe restrictions on the ability of operators to do their jobs. The chief culprits involve protected species and archeological sites.

One Wyoming operator has fought for two years for a drilling permit on a barren plot in Sweetwater County’s windswept desert. After submitting an $80,000 study, which yielded a “finding of no significant [environmental] impact,” the operator was denied its drilling permits because a federal employee had discovered, belatedly, a pile of loose stones–a “cairn.” The employee says it is an active religious site that will be disturbed by any drilling visible from the “cairn.”

Maybe Greenspan is right, and the public has not reached a consensus regarding the proper balance between cairns in Wyoming and the cost of home heating fuel in Wisconsin. Maybe we’ll be closer to that consensus this winter.

William Perry Pendley is president and chief legal officer of the Mountain States Legal Foundation. His email address is [email protected].