While it doesn’t get much play in the heat of the final days leading up to the midterms, U.S. energy policy is still in the news. Unfortunately, not all of the coverage is quite as honestly depicted as you might hope. We’re still riding a nearly unprecedented energy boom in the United States, but the New York Times found a way to cast a dark cloud over it this weekend. Eric Lipton et al. published a look at oil and gas drilling on federal lands in Wyoming designed to send chills down your spine just in time for Halloween. To read this coverage, you would think that Big Oil was gorging on the corpse of the Cowboy State, leaving some sort of Mad Max wasteland in its wake.
The parade of trailer trucks rolling through Jay Butler’s dusty ranch is a precursor to a new fracking boom on the vast federal lands of Wyoming and across the West.
Reversing a trend in the final years of the Obama presidency, the Trump administration is auctioning off millions of acres of drilling rights to oil and gas developers, a central component of the White House’s plan to work hand in glove with the industry to promote more domestic energy production.
Seeing growth and profit opportunities at a time of rising oil prices and a pro-business administration, big energy companies like Chesapeake Energy, Chevron, and Anschutz Exploration are seizing on the federal lands free-for-all, as they collectively buy up tens of thousands of acres of new leases and apply for thousands of permits to drill.
It’s a “parade of trailer trucks!” Somebody is “reversing a trend… of the Obama presidency.” Big oil is engaged in a “federal lands free-for-all!”
You’d think from these heated proclamations that the oil and gas industry was running wild in Wyoming at massive levels which dwarf anything seen during the peace and love festival of the Obama days, right? But as Energy In Depth (EID) was quick to point out, Lipton is using some verbal sleight-of-hand to push a narrative here. Cleverly mixing just enough facts with some misdirection, the reader is led to believe that drilling on federal lands under the Trump administration is skyrocketing. The author himself promoted the idea on Twitter.
The Trump administration has also been in a race to lease more and more federal lands for oil and gas drilling. So much land has been put out to auction that the industry just can't take it all. Most of it is not attracting bids. But land put up for auction has skyrocketed. pic.twitter.com/ALqzArQdYi
— Eric Lipton (@EricLiptonNYT) October 27, 2018
Notice what’s being done here. Lipton is pushing numbers which indicate the number of acres of land being offered at auction. That’s quite different from the number of acres which were actually leased to energy companies and the amount of actual energy extraction taking place. As EID demonstrates with two charts drawn from data provided at the Bureau of Land Management, the real picture is exactly the opposite. Here’s the total number of acres leased for energy exploration by year going back to 2006. As you will see, the number of acres leased was greater during each and every year of Obama’s presidency than since Trump took office.
But since the New York Times was specifically speaking of Wyoming, maybe it’s different there? Sorry, folks. The same story holds true.
Yes, there’s plenty of land available at auction. But the industry isn’t taking anywhere near all of it. The reasons for this vary. Some land is simply not that promising for development or may be prohibitively expensive to reach and work on. In some cases, energy companies simply don’t need any more land at present because they’re already working at or near capacity. We’re in the middle of an oil and gas boom with no end in sight for decades to come.
There are also dark hints in the New York Times story about how this flurry of drilling has created “concerns” about environmental impact, particularly when newer wells in remote areas are flaring off excess gas. But that’s a temporary condition which only applies until sufficient pipelines and roads are in place to move all of the product. Keep in mind that the United States now leads the industrialized world in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and has cut them more since January of 2017 than most lawmakers were asking for through government regulation. The industry has slashed gas emissions through flaring and other sources, primarily because they were literally burning money when they did it.
All in all, it sounds like things are going pretty well. And there hasn’t been an explosion of drilling on federal lands as compared to when Barack Obama was president. In fact, the industry hasn’t even caught up to those levels.