Green River Basin study finds broad barriers to drilling

Maureen Lorenzetti
OGJ Online

WASHINGTON, DC, June 6 -- US Department of Energy officials told a National Petroleum Council meeting Wednesday that industry is even more restricted from drilling in the Rocky Mountains than was previously thought.

The council is a 175-member federal committee that advises the US Energy Secretary on oil and gas issues.

Working on a tract-by-tract basis, a team from the departments of Energy, Interior, and Agriculture spent 7 months studying federal lands in the Greater Green River Basin of Wyoming and Colorado.

It found that 68% of the area's technically recoverable natural gas resources, as much as 79 tcf, is either closed to development or under significant access restrictions. About 30% was completely off limits, while 39% was available with restrictions industry said are objectionable.

DOE said the findings conflict with data from environmental groups such as the Wilderness Society, which maintain industry already has wide access to most federal lands and restricted areas need continuing environmental protection.

"The Bush administration has created the myth that an oil and gas bonanza awaits us in our national forests if only we turn industry loose there," said Michael Francis, director of the national forest program for the Wilderness Society. "It's a fairy tale. Nor is it true that the industry has been denied access. Companies have exploited most of the roadless areas they thought had much potential, and the new roadless policy would have no effect on existing leases. This is much ado about nothing."

He said in Colorado, for example, roadless areas account for just 3% of the acreage with oil and gas potential, and only 2% of the roadless areas are under lease.

DOE, however, concurs with industry's argument that many areas that may be technically available for exploration are in effect off-limits because of constraints that may need to be revisited.

It said its forecasts show that by 2020 the US will need 50% more natural gas than today. And based on that information, the White House's National Energy Policy calls for a review of public land status and lease stipulations that may be impeding federal oil and gas exploration development.

DOE said that of the 39% of federal natural gas resources cited in Green River Basin, much of the area is restricted for 3 to 9 months to provide winter habitat for large game or to allow sage grouse or raptors to nest.

Gas estimates were obtained mainly from the US Geological Survey's 1995 national oil and gas assessment, which is being updated. Government geologists told the administration and Congress earlier this year they expect their new assessment to have higher reserve estimates because of technological advances in drilling and recovery. Data collection has also improved dramatically.

Nevertheless, DOE's latest analysis using USGS's outdated numbers show federal land is still much more restricted than what the NPC estimated in its December 1999 study on natural gas access. NPC put the figure at 40% for the region.

The Greater Green River Basin study was conducted in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service, and is part of a larger planned project to analyze gas resources under federal lands in the Rocky Mountain region.

DOE officials said they are now analyzing production on federal lands in Uinta and Piceance basins in Utah and Colorado.

Contact Maureen Lorenzetti at

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