Drilling at what cost? Our science shows that U.S. public lands hold tiny amounts of energy

Bryce Canyon Hoodoos, Utah. Photo by Ben Stimler, Flickr.

For the past several years, there has been an unprecedented rush in applying for permits to lease and drill federal public lands especially in the West. Proponents for drilling use energy independence and economic gain to justify their case. So how much oil and gas is really available under public lands and how much are they worth? Our spatial analysts, economists and ecologists in TWS make it their business to find out.

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In order to find out how many resources exist under these federal lands, our spatial analysts processed a substantial quantity of the most current USGS-developed estimates for undiscovered oil and gas resources for the Rocky Mountains into a single dataset that represents the best available data for the region. This data has been used to estimate the volume of undiscovered technically recoverable resources located under these lease parcels. Learn more about the methodology.

Recently, this analysis has been instrumental in contesting the Utah oil and gas lease sale in which the Bureau of Land Management issued leases covering close to 150,000 acres in Utah. Plaintiffs have challenged 77 of those leases, totaling around 103,000 acres. Under these contested leases, we found that oil and natural gas amounts to a miniscule amount of energy.

At best, they contain 0.02% or 1.4 hours of U.S. annual oil consumption and only 0.5% or 1.8 days of U.S. annual natural gas consumption. Bear in mind, these are “technically recoverable” values which do not take into account the engineering and economic constraints of extraction, and are therefore overestimated. The same analysis is currently being used to fend off drilling in wild places on White River National Forest in Colorado, and Wyoming’s Red Desert and Big Horn Basin.

What do we expect to sacrifice for this miniscule amount of energy? Get some answers in our science reports:

Wildlife Habitat Fragmentation

Our scientific studies show that the infrastructure of natural gas development -- wells, drill pads, roads, pipelines, and other structures -- can harm wildlife populations, displacing them from preferred areas, making them more vulnerable to predation, and reducing the effectiveness of habitat for forage, breeding, or other life functions. While the direct effects of oil and gas drilling may be limited to the physical footprint of roads and well pads, the complex web of these structures across the landscape causes indirect and cumulative effects on habitat quality and connectivity that extend well beyond the physical structures and can last long after gas extraction is completed.

Economic Costs

Rural communities may feel the economic pinch when hunters, anglers and tourists stop spending money because wildlife have been pushed out by sprawling network of pipelines and wells. Air pollution arising from gas compressors contributes to ozone problems in the West. Not only is health a problem but combined with dust from roads, it creates regional haze which decreases the visibility of scenic landscapes and hurts the tourism industry.

Excessive oil and gas drilling can also affect other aspects of rural economies. In this day and age of easy communication and transportation, many businesses can locate wherever they wish.  Many choose locations based on amenities they offer, including access to outdoor recreation, clean air and water, and a scenic setting.  Oil and gas drilling can reduce these amenities and lessen their beneficial economic impacts.

Contamination of Water Supply

To access gas reserves otherwise unreachable with conventional drilling methods, the oil and gas industry resolves to “fracking”. This method requires pumping thousands of gallons of pressurized water, sand, and chemicals to fracture the subsurface rock formations allowing drillers to access diffuse deposits of natural gas. The main concern is that fracking sometimes occurs close enough to underground sources of drinking water to cause contamination when the surrounding rock is shattered and toxic chemicals leak into the water supply.

Our surface water is also in peril. There are concerns that the water with high levels of total dissolved solids and high salinity that is discharged by coal bed methane production on the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana will reach major regional rivers and streams.  Several household water wells in the area have been contaminated since large-scale coal bed methane production began.  The contaminants found in these discharged water can wreak havoc on aquatic organisms.

With this long list of woes, we should think twice about what we are willing to give up to sustain our gluttony for oil and natural gas.

photo: Bryce Canyon Hoodoos, Utah. Photo by Ben Stimler, Flickr.