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Friday, October 08, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
Natural gas and public lands: clean energy for a bright future

By Rebecca Watson
Special to The Times

Rebecca Watson
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Critics of natural-gas development on public lands consistently fail to address the ultimate goal of these programs — to provide the energy that powers our lives.

More than half of our electricity comes from coal-fired power plants.

But today, natural gas is replacing coal in a majority of new plants, increasing efficiency and decreasing pollution. This is good news, yet proposals to produce natural gas on public lands have been met with stiff criticism from the very people who press for clean air.

The use of natural gas has evolved since the early days of gas lamps to embrace diverse modern applications such as pollution-busting public-transportation systems and clean electricity for our high-tech world.

Demand for natural gas will continue to increase by an estimated 50 percent in the next 20 years. We will depend on it to help us transition to a future of pollution-free energy.

Where will we obtain this clean-burning fuel if not from the abundant deposits on public lands that Congress has mandated be used to support the country's energy needs?

The U.S. Geological Survey recently reported federal lands in five key areas in the West contain nearly 140 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — enough to supply the 56 million homes already using natural gas for the next 30 years.

There is a tendency for people to judge energy proposals on past practices. But the natural-gas industry has changed and so have federal requirements. New drill pads are smaller, roads are less intrusive, and new technology helps pinpoint and access reserves far from drill sites.

Additionally, federal managers require stricter stipulations to address wildlife concerns and reclaim and restore the land.

Still, there are those who would like to keep all public lands locked away from energy development. The law forbids this. The Federal Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act of 1987 requires the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to offer competitive oil and gas lease sales every quarter whenever companies show interest.

With record-high demand for natural gas, and resultant high prices, there is plenty of interest. While energy developers may be motivated by economics, the Department of Interior is driven by something else altogether: a commitment to carefully manage public lands for multiple uses to benefit Americans now and into the future.

Energy development is an important part of this, but it is not done at the expense of natural resources. Leasing is prohibited on more than 165 million acres and authorized in other areas only after a land-use plan, developed with open public participation, determines the appropriate level.

Energy development must comply with all environmental laws, include a second round of public participation, and follow numerous federal, state and local regulations.

Of the 700 million acres of subsurface mineral estate managed by BLM, only about 42 million acres are currently leased for oil and gas development. The amount of land actually disturbed (including roads, wells and pipelines) is far less — about 275,000 acres. This is because a lease, which could cover one square mile (640 acres), may only contain one or two wells.

Renewable energy is often touted as an alternative to drilling. We agree, renewable energy is important and we are moving aggressively to assist its development. In fact, since 2001, Interior has issued more than 200 geothermal energy leases and 60 wind energy right-of-ways compared with just 20 geothermal and nine wind in the past four years of the previous administration.

Although renewable energy has tremendous potential, it clearly is not ready to meet the nation's near-term energy requirements. Solar, wind, geothermal and biomass production currently supplies 2.2 percent of electricity generated in the United States. In 20 years, it will account for only 3.7 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration's 2004 projections. This means that more than 95 percent of our electricity will have to come from other sources.

Renewable energy development has impacts, too. One commercial solar field could require leveling 1,000 acres. Residents of several states already are rallying against the idea of wind farms in their line of sight.

Energy issues are not black and white, yet this is how they are often portrayed. The Interior Department does not pretend there is a single, one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, we are implementing an environmentally sound policy on public lands, embracing both traditional and renewable energy, in order to address the real issues of today while planning for the future. I invite Americans who prefer action over rhetoric to join us in this important work.

Rebecca Watson is the assistant secretary for land and minerals management at the Department of the Interior.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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