Fact Check: Romney Is Wrong About Energy Development On Public Lands

by Christy Goldfuss

In last night’s second Presidential debate, President Obama and Governor Romney had a heated exchange about energy development on public lands. The fact checkers immediately stated that Mr. Romney’s number one statistic — that production of oil on government land is down 14 percent — was misleading. The truth is that oil production on Federal lands is up from the previous administration. But that is far from the full story.

Governor Romney and his lead energy advisor, oil and gas tycoon Harold Hamm, have repeatedly stated that oil and gas development on public lands has not kept pace with state and private lands. They conveniently leave out the fact that it is not geologically possible for that to happen. The Energy Information Agency released a map that shows the vast majority of the current oil and gas shale plays in the lower 48 states are not on public lands. As EIA administrator Adam Sieminski noted in Congressional testimony in August, “The geology is working in favor of non-federal landowners.”

This is backed up by the fact that the oil and gas industry itself has asked the government for fewer public lands on which to drill. As the price of natural gas dropped, there was a dramatic decline in the amount of public land nominated by the industry for leasing. Since fiscal year 2006 (during the Bush administration), there has been nearly a 67 percent decline in the amount of onshore public land nominated by the industry in the Rocky Mountain States. As one industry expert told The Wall Street Journal, “It is safe to say that there will be fewer natural gas wells drilled in 2012.” However, Governor Romney fails to recognize that the Bureau of Land Management cannot lease or permit lands that the industry does not request.


The Federal Government under President Obama has done its part to grant the oil and gas industry access to the acres with the best quality oil and gas resources. For example, the Bureau of Land Management held three of its five largest oil and gas lease sales onshore in 2011. While Governor Romney was quick to point out that much of the boom in oil and gas production in the United States comes from Bakken Formation in North Dakota, the numbers show that under President Obama the Bureau of Land Management has leased, permitted, and drilled more on North Dakota’s public lands than under the previous administration (see graphic below).

Public lands owned by all Americans are inherently different than private lands. In many cases, by law, the land management agencies are required to manage for multiple uses — including hunting, fishing, grazing, hiking, recreation, and not just energy production. As a result, an “all of the above” energy strategy cannot mean an “all of the acres” strategy.

Governor Romney stated earlier this year that he did not understand the “purpose” of public lands. But since that time he has released an energy plan that defines their purpose as supporting the oil and gas industry. The plan would give states control of energy development decisions on Public Lands, which would threaten 30 national park units including the Everglades and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Such a plan also threatens the 6.1 million American jobs nationwide created by the outdoor industry and ignores the very premise of public lands. As President Theodore Roosevelt said, America’s great natural resources “must be used for the benefit of all our people, not monopolized for the benefit of the few.”

Christy Goldfuss is the Director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.