Panelists say access to federal lands could cure energy woes

Published June 1, 2001

Any national energy policy adopted by the federal government should allow increased development of energy resources on federal lands, urged a gathering of western governors and industry experts at a House Resources Committee hearing held March 7. They assured the Congressmen in attendance that new technologies allow such resource development to be done in an environmentally responsible way.

Energy proponents are looking to make federal agencies more open to oil, gas, coal, and hydropower development, including altering some Clinton administration initiatives that put many areas off-limits to such uses. Ranking Resources Committee member Nick Rahall (D-West Virginia) noted, however, that “natural gas and coal production from federal leases was at an all-time high during the Clinton administration, surpassing the amount produced during the Reagan years, let alone Bush the first.

“I become somewhat puzzled,” he continued, “when I hear talk about opening more federal lands to energy development.”

Since parks and wilderness areas should not be tapped, and since many offshore sites are under drilling moratoria Bush says he supports, the issue comes down to whether drilling should occur in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, Rahall surmised.

Rather than dwelling on that contentious debate, he continued, more focus should be given to constructing a congressionally authorized natural gas pipeline from Alaska’s North Slope to help answer energy needs.

Giving states a role

Drilling in the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain of the 19-million-acre ANWR was one of the major topics of discussion at the March 7 hearing. Environmentalists oppose development of the site because, they say, drilling would hurt caribou, polar bears, other wildlife, and the landscape itself.

Alaska Governor Tony Knowles disagreed, saying ANWR drilling would create thousands of jobs, lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and reduce fuel prices. Drilling could be done with “special precautions” for the area’s wildlife, he said.

Knowles said practices at nearby Prudhoe Bay demonstrate the oil industry’s ability to develop with minimal environmental impacts. They can use smaller-than-usual pads to drill diagonal wells that reach a broader area underground, he noted, and can confine their activity to the winter months, when equipment can move over ice slabs, which then melt in the summer and lessen the operation’s “footprint.”

Wyoming Governor Jim Geringer stressed at the hearing the importance of finding energy solutions to continue upward economic trends. He said much of the federal lands in the West contain energy reserves, but Clinton-era land use decisions have impeded access, stymying efforts to reach those reserves.

Federal agencies should more actively involve state governments in policy decisions, Geringer said, perhaps by granting them the rarely used “cooperating agency” status under the National Environmental Policy Act, which would put them on a more equal footing with the federal agencies.

Oil and gas industry experts testified that federal policies restricting companies’ access to public lands generally are based on past events and do not take into account new technologies.

Seeking multiple use

When evaluating access to federal lands, Congress should first look at areas where development used to occur but is now restricted, said Neal Stanley, testifying on behalf of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States and the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Jim Bowles, of the American Petroleum Institute, concurred. Energy developers aren’t looking to drill in wilderness areas or parks, he said, but seek access to lands already designated for “multiple uses.”

Federal agencies also should be given a clear mandate on how to weigh energy development against other uses. Agency officials do not now consider how their policy decisions affect energy sustainability, said Stanley. Bowles agreed, noting the national energy policy due should recognize that a long-term solution requires:

  • increasing all forms of energy;
  • being flexible enough to allow companies to “adapt to new energy and environmental challenges”;
  • “encouraging competitive trade practices and international investment”;
  • and creating a stable regulatory environment for investors.

Terry O’Connor, testifying on behalf of the National Mining Association, pointed out that some Clinton administration initiatives–such as the Forest Service’s roadless rule, scheduled to go into effect May 12–would hinder access to coal reserves. The Bush administration is currently reviewing that rule, along with several others that would impact uses of federal lands.

Clinton’s national monument designations also garnered criticism. O’Connor singled out the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, which withdrew major coal reserves from productive use.

Chris Hocker, president of the National Hydropower Association, said efforts to increase hydropower, the “nation’s leading renewable” energy source, are impeded by agency regulations that do not acknowledge that “healthy rivers and hydropower can coexist.”

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