Western battles

Aug. 3, 1998
Oil and gas operators are well aware that the lands available for oil and gas leasing in the Western U.S. are shrinking. A recent industry survey found that access to federal lands in eight western states has declined by more than 60% since 1983 (OGJ, May 11, 1998, p. 33). But Prof. Jan Laitos, of the University of Denver College of Law, says the process isn't necessarily irreversible. He is preparing a paper on the subject and discussed some preliminary findings last week at the
Patrick Crow
Washington, D.C.
[email protected]
Oil and gas operators are well aware that the lands available for oil and gas leasing in the Western U.S. are shrinking.

A recent industry survey found that access to federal lands in eight western states has declined by more than 60% since 1983 (OGJ, May 11, 1998, p. 33).

But Prof. Jan Laitos, of the University of Denver College of Law, says the process isn't necessarily irreversible.

He is preparing a paper on the subject and discussed some preliminary findings last week at the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States' annual meeting in Vail, Colo.

Laitos said that environmental interests have defeated the oil industry on access to lands issues and now face tougher enemies: U.S. citizens who would crowd national parks or enjoy recreational areas with motorized vehicles.

Economic, legal decisions

He said western communities near public lands have realized in recent years that their economic well-being is better served by more stable economic sources than the oil and gas, mining, and timber industries.

"The West has been transformed from a commodity-based economy to a service-based economy, relying on sectors such as tourism and real estate development.

"The recreation industry is not dependent on whether Iraq exports oil, or on the futures markets, or on oil prices set outside this country. It is the fastest-growing industry in the U.S. and is reliable, stable, and predictable. Local communities are not unaware of that reality."

Laitos said that the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service have been reducing the multiple-use land base and restricting access to the lands that remain.

Fortunately, he said, recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court have affirmed "the idea that private property rights can succeed in a showdown in the federal government" through principles such as the constitutional prohibition against the illegal taking of private property.

Unfortunately, he said, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals (which has jurisdiction over lawsuits in many Western states) is "notoriously insensitive to private property rights and has not yet figured out what the Supreme Court is saying."

Local strategy

Laitos said the industry needs to win in the court of public opinion, too.

Most of all, he said, oil and gas operators should lobby local governments on the need for the development of commodities on public lands.

"They should recapture local governments, which have, in many cases, been taken over by recreational and preservational interests."

He said the latter "have become a constituency within county commissions, within city governments, and with grassroots groups, while the oil and gas community has not. And, therefore, when local decisions are made about what is preferable, oil and gas is not given as much of a chance.

"Unfortunately, the local governments play an enormous role in federal decisionmaking. The BLM and the Forest Service do listen to local communities. And if they are opposed to an oil and gas operation, it is an uphill battle for oil and gas producers."

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