Accessing Energy Resources on Public Lands

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Federal land ownership affects the ability of energy developers to access energy and mineral resources. In recent decades, the energy industry and other parties have complained that environmental regulations have led to a continually shrinking level of access to such resources. In contrast, environmental groups maintain that energy industry access to public lands is extensive and growing. A review of these perspectives indicates that energy development on public lands has, in fact, declined significantly.

According to the American Petroleum Institute (API), the federal government owns 78 percent of the nation’s oil and 62 percent of its gas resources. The API claims that the federal government limits access to 90 percent of offshore areas of the outer continental shelf and that litigation and permitting delays limit access to onshore lands. It also notes that in 1999 4.5 percent of oil and gas leases were challenged in court, but now nearly 50 percent are. Permit restrictions also complicate drilling and make it impossible in some leased areas. 

In contrast, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) claimed in 2005 that oil and gas development on those lands was out of control and that this development affected one in three acres of federal land. To make its point, EWG used an elaborate computer mapping program that cross-referenced data from a federal Bureau of Land Management database with additional data collected from several other sources that included locations of oil and gas operations around the nation. After comparing this database with the location of federal lands, it reported: “We electronically plotted the 3.45 million tracts of Western public land currently or formerly drilled, mined, offered to, or otherwise controlled by mining, oil and gas interests, as detailed in the three data sources described above.”