Science and Children >  > Energy: Fuel for Thought > Energy and Public Lands 
Energy - Fuel for Thought Banner




Using the Poster

An Energy Profile
Energy for the Future 
An Energy Budget



Based on an article in
Science & Children Magazine,
Published by the National Science Teachers Association, May 2002


Energy and Public Lands

The United States boasts substantial energy resources. Federal lands provide a good deal of U.S. energy production; the U.S. Department of the Interior manages federal energy leasing, both on land and on the offshore Outer Continental Shelf. Production from these sources amounts to nearly 30 percent of total annual U.S. energy production.
Transmission Lines on Public Land near Moab, Utah
Public lands not only provide energy resources but also play a vital role in getting those resources to consumers. Pipelines and transmission lines, such as these in Utah, stretch across many kilometers of BLM lands. In 2000 alone, BLM issued more than 3,000 rights of way for commercial use of public lands.

In 2000, 32 percent of U.S. oil, 35 percent of natural gas, and 37 percent of coal were produced from federal lands, representing 20,000 producing oil and gas leases and 135 producing coal leases. Federal lands are also estimated to contain approximately 68 percent of all undiscovered U.S. oil reserves and 74 percent of undiscovered natural gas.

As the nation's largest public land manager (responsible for 106 million hectares of surface lands and 280 million hectares of mineral estate) and the agency responsible for leasing of most fossil fuels on federal lands, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has a particularly important role in maintaining U.S. supplies of conventional energy resources. BLM is currently evaluating the highest priority areas in the United States to identify and eliminate impediments to oil and gas exploration and development. Regulatory streamlining is also a goal, and financial incentives for recovering marginal resources are being investigated.

Revenues from federal oil, gas, and coal leasing provide significant returns to U.S. taxpayers as well as State governments. In 1999, for example, $553 million in oil and gas revenues were paid to the U.S. Treasury, and non-Indian coal leases accounted for over $304 million in revenues, of which 50 percent were paid to State governments. Public lands also play a critical role in energy delivery. Each year, federal land managers authorize rights of way for transmission lines, rail systems, pipelines, and other facilities related to energy production and use. In 2000 alone, BLM issued 3,153 rights of way for commercial use of public lands.

Alternative energy production from federal lands lags behind conventional energy production, though the amount is still significant. For example, federal geothermal resources produce about 7.5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, 47 percent of all electricity generated from U.S. geothermal energy. There are 2,960 wind turbines on public lands in California alone, producing electricity for about 300,000 people. Federal hydropower facilities produce about 17 percent of all hydropower produced in the United States.

Most U.S. geothermal resources are in the western states, where most public lands are located. The sunny southwest has the greatest potential for solar energy production. Wind resources are more widespread, and there are federal lands in many of the most favorable areas.

The Secretaries of the Interior, Energy, and Agriculture are in the process of identifying renewable energy siting opportunities and reevaluating access restrictions on federal lands. Development limitations, including environmental considerations, must also be assessed. Federal agencies will also consider development incentives such as reduced site rental fees to encourage industry to more aggressively pursue renewable energy production.

Because of the growing U.S. thirst for energy and increasing public unease with dependence on foreign oil sources, pressure on the public lands to meet U.S. energy demands is intensifying. Public lands are available for energy development only after they have been evaluated through the land use planning process. If development of energy resources conflicts with management or use of other resources, development restrictions or impact mitigation measures may be imposed, or mineral production may be banned altogether.

BLM and other land managers have the delicate task of weighing energy production against competing public land uses, seeking a balance that both best serves the American public and sustains the health of the land. This is often a difficult undertaking, as conflicts over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) illustrate. This pristine, controversial area—by current law off-limits to energy development—hosts native tribes, a vast wilderness teeming with wildlife, and significant oil and gas reserves. Wildlife and wilderness proponents oppose any development whatsoever; the oil industry and the current administration view ANWR as a step toward energy independence; and the native peoples—some of whom stand to gain, some to lose—are split on the subject. In addition to carefully considering what is fact and what is opinion, everyone involved in making decisions about ANWR and energy in general will need to seek innovative approaches and work collaboratively to find alternatives that can be accepted by all.