TCS Daily

Government Puts Energy Off Limits With No Environmental Purpose

By John Merline - February 5, 2001 12:00 AM

Gale Norton's fractious nomination as secretary of the Interior Department is now safely behind her. Her battle, though, may represent just a curtain raiser for struggles to come as she tries to implement Bush administration land use policies - particularly its energy plans.

When Bush put Norton's name up for the post, environmentalist groups went on the warpath. She is, the Sierra Club said, an "anti-environmental extremist" who "has long advocated opening America's wildlands to the oil, gas, mining and logging industries."

Central to Bush's energy plan is to tap into the abundant domestic supplies of energy -- principally oil and natural gas -- that have been placed off limits by federal restrictions that are in some cases decades old. For some environmental groups, it is a simple either/or proposition: Either you are for protecting precious wilderness and parkland, or you are in favor of Big Oil. You can't be for both. Typical of the attitude is a quote from a preservationist in The New York Times: "It's an oxymoron to say that you can make an oil well environmentally sensitive."

This argument has gone on for more than a decade. But while the terms of the debate haven't changed much, the facts on the ground have changed considerably. The nation's need for energy has grown dramatically; at the same time, drilling technology has advanced such that much of that energy can be recovered with little or no harm to the environment.

Natural gas provides the primary example of both the change in demand and in technology to meet it.

Over the years, the federal government has been pushing natural gas, seeing it as environmentally benign compared with other energy sources. When burned, natural gas produces half the greenhouse gas emissions as coal and a third less than oil to produce the same the same amount of energy. The Department of Energy has reported that a vast shift from coal and oil to natural gas is required to meet greenhouse-gas emission goals environmentalists favor. In fact, almost every new electricity plant built today is powered by natural gas; 70 percent of new homes are heated by it, and increasing numbers of city and state vehicles run on it.

So, it's no surprise that demand for natural gas is skyrocketing - climbing a fifth in the last decade and expected to grow another 45 percent over the next two. But that demand butts into both a practical and government imposed restrictions on supply.

Unlike oil, which can be cheaply imported in large oil tankers, natural gas mostly must come from domestic sources as transport in liquefied form is expensive. Currently, only 15 percent of the nation's natural gas is imported, and most of that is from our northern neighbor -- Canada.

But domestic supply is restricted by environmental policies. Some 137 trillion cubic feet is off limits in the Rocky Mountain region because of a complex web of land use restrictions administered by several federal and state agencies. Another 76 trillion cubic feet can't be reached thanks to moratoria on drilling off the East and West Coasts and the Gulf of Mexico. President Clinton bottled up still more natural gas with his last minute monument declarations.

With demand skyrocketing to meet environmental goals and supply restricted due to environmentalists' fears, it's little wonder that natural gas prices have doubled in the last two years and are likely to double or more in the next six or seven.

But what if the environmental fears underlying those restrictions are false? What if new supplies can be reached without permanently harming the environment?

In fact, that is the case. Advances in drilling technology mean fewer wells with smaller can produce the same amount of natural gas or oil with far fewer environmental problems. For example, new technology lets drillers cut the "footprint" - the land required -- of a well pad by as much as 70 percent. Better acoustical and vibration devices cut the noise and disruption once required to locate gas supplies. Better detection means fewer dry wells. Directional and horizontal drilling lets drillers mount a rig in one area, and recover energy supplies miles away.

Even the means of get equipment into a site - once among the most disruptive aspects of drilling - have become more environmentally benign. In Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest, helicopters were able to transport the drilling rig and other heavy equipment, sparing the surrounding land from disruptive truck traffic. Ice roads and ice pads have sharply cut the environmental impact of drilling on Alaska's North Slope.

In short, as 1999 Department of Energy report noted, "Resources underlying arctic regions, coastal and deep offshore waters, sensitive wetlands and wildlife habitats, public lands, and even cities and airports can now be contacted and produced without disrupting surface features above them."

Unfortunately, as that same report noted: "Public awareness of the significant and impressive environmental benefits from new exploration and production technology advances remains limited." An Associated Press poll released last week reflected this problem. It showed more than half public opposed opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuse to natural gas production. So long as the public perceives oil and gas drilling as a dirty business that permanently harms huge tracts of land, opposition to even reasonable exploration will remain high.

Meanwhile, as the United States is paralyzed by phony fears, Canada is taking strides through integrated management plans to strike some reasonable balance between its desire to protect wilderness and its increasing need for energy. New Canadian national park designations must go through a natural resources audit before boundaries are drawn. And the country is looking for ways to accommodate drilling in offshore areas current off limits. Much of the natural gas supplied to New England comes from a Canadian offshore gas rig just miles north of the U.S. coastline, where such drilling remains strictly off limits.

Clinton's Energy Department was right: "A more flexible and responsive policy and regulatory framework is critical to the U.S. oil and gas industry's ability to provide reliable and affordable energy supplies." And while the Clinton administration never promoted that finding and other in the Energy Department report, Bush's Interior Secretary Gale Norton along with fellow cabinet members should dust it off and share it with the rest of the nation.

Despite what people here may have heard, retrieving oil and gas reserves from underground doesn't have to come at the expense of the land, animals or water above them. And in light of the nation's energy needs, the public needs to know that.

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