WASHINGTON – The Bush administration foresees no letup in the aggressive pace for Western oil and gas drilling, despite some voter backlash from people tired of seeing more and more rigs in their Rocky Mountain states.
“There’s absolutely no doubt that the interest in oil and gas is going to continue. I mean, it is where it is,” Jim Caswell, the new director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, said Friday. He took office in August.
Public lands managed by BLM produce 18 percent of the nation’s natural gas and five percent of its oil. BLM manages 258 million acres, about one-eighth of the land in the United States. Most of that land – grasslands, forests, high mountains, arctic tundra and deserts – is in the West. It also oversees about 700 million acres of minerals below the land’s surface.
Five basins in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico contain the nation’s largest onshore reserves of natural gas. BLM has been approving about one of every four applications it receives for permits to drill. But states also approve leases; in Montana, about 120 of the 750 wells producing coalbed methane are on federal leases.
“The key, though, to me is how do we develop that resource in the most environmentally sensitive way?” Caswell said. “I mean, how can we be as compatible as possible long term? This is not some short-term thing; this is long term. I mean, we’re talking 20, 30 years.”
The White House, emphasizing energy independence from foreign oil, has made it a top priority for BLM to speed up the processing of permits for oil and natural gas leasing. In some Western states, that has caused some GOP resistance.
Democrats have made gains in Colorado, taking the governorship and several congressional seats in recent years in part because of disenchantment among the “hook and bullet” crowd of sportsmen and ranchers who compete with energy drillers for use of public lands.
Caswell said he believes any voter backlash is “to some degree overblown.”