from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

The Shale Boom Won’t Be Repeated on Federal Lands

Gray wolves are seen nearing a Bison in Yellowstone National Park in this undated handout photograph released on February 21, 2008.

March 8, 2013

Gray wolves are seen nearing a Bison in Yellowstone National Park in this undated handout photograph released on February 21, 2008.
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A visit to Yellowstone National Park last week has me thinking about federal lands. In the fight over whether the U.S. oil and gas boom is happening because of or despite President Obama’s policies, perhaps the most commonly heard fact is this: oil production is surging on non-federal lands but is down on lands controlled by Washington. This observation, many claim, shows that oil and gas production is up despite U.S. policy to thwart it – and a policy reversal would send oil and gas output far higher.

An intriguing little study published earlier this week by the Center for Western Priorities pokes some enlightening holes in that argument. The study authors observe that recent gains in U.S. oil and gas production have been driven primarily by production from shale plays. Then they ask a simple question: How much of the U.S. shale oil and gas resource is located on federal lands? The answer, they find, is less than 10 percent – a surprising figure given that about 30 percent of U.S. land is federally controlled. The upshot is that opening more federal land for shale development wouldn’t have huge consequences. [UPDATE: Michael Wara makes an important observation in the comments: many shale resources are controlled by BLM even if the lands above them aren’t. That makes federal decisions critical in some cases.]

One can quibble around the edges with the study: it seems to mis-classify some plays (it divides them into oil, gas, and mixed, not always correctly), and it focuses on surface area covered by various plays rather than on the volume of resource underneath. But the first problem has no impact on the aggregate results. And the second is just as likely to cause the authors to overestimate the fraction of shale opportunities that are on federal lands is it is to lead them to underestimate it.

A look at this map, which appears to have informed the new study, helps explain what’s going on. The vast bulk of federal land is located west of the Rockies, but the great majority of the U.S. shale resource is located east of the Continental Divide. Even in California, where federal lands cover a large part of the state, they don’t overlap much with the shale resource; that remains true even if you look at more expansive definitions of that resource than the new study uses.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t big oil and gas production opportunities on federal lands. Shale isn’t the only game in town: there are large conventional and offshore resources on federally controlled tracts, and production from them could increase substantially with policy changes, though with attendant costs (more on that in another post). But this ought to be separated from the question of whether the shale boom would be a lot bigger with more access to federal lands. It probably wouldn’t be.

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