Instant Theory

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Heavy exploration, little return

According to a study by the Environmental Working Group, the oil industry has little to show for several decades of fossil fuel exploration on public and private lands of the western US. The study comes on the heels of the Bush Administration’s Energy Policy Act, which emphasizes and provides large incentives for home exploration.

Between 1989 and 2003, on 229 million acres in 12 western states, the industry has extracted enough oil to power the nation for a paltry 53 days. Natural gas finds haven’t been much better—the industry has only extracted 221 days worth, according to the EWG report, Losing Ground.

In the same era, industry has taken advantage of the “split estate” land designation, which gives the government mineral rights even on privately owned land. These claims are often sold to the highest industry bidder. In fact, the EWG report states that the oil industry controls lands inside, or within 5 miles of, 69 percent of the West’s national parks. The figure jumps to 75 percent in wilderness areas.

In many of these places, the goods are not easily gotten. On the Roan Plateau in Colorado, for example, natural gas deposits are found deep beneath undulating sedimentary formations. In this landscape, explosives and chemicals are used to puncture the ground and tap these deep reserves. Once these reservoirs are “cracked” however, “gushers” rarely follow, as the hundreds of abandoned natural gas wells on the Western Slope of Colorado testify.

A strange event nearly 35 years ago perhaps best illustrates the depths the industry has gone to tap stubborn western reserves. In 1969, near the town of Doghead Mountain, Colorado, engineers detonated a 40-kiloton atomic bomb, 8,500 feet underground to crack open a sandstone reservoir. Ironically (i.e., fittingly) the fuel released was too radioactive to sell.

With the oil industry’s poor returns, in spite of its carte blanche access to private and public lands, we might well ask whether the small energy returns justify the large environmental costs. We should demand greater accountability from the Bureau of Land Management and stricter management of those digging for elusive--perhaps illusory--gold beneath the ground while spoiling the real treasures found at the surface.

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