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Has energy production increased or decreased on federal lands?

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Energy topics came up early on in tonight’s presidential debate. There was a lot of back and forth between President Obama and Governor Romney about domestic energy production, especially in the context of gasoline prices. Here’s what the candidates said about energy production on federal lands (transcript from Politico):

OBAMA: Here’s what happened. You had a whole bunch of oil companies who had leases on public lands that they weren’t using. So what we said was you can’t just sit on this for 10, 20, 30 years, decide when you want to drill, when you want to produce, when it’s most profitable for you. These are public lands. So if you want to drill on public lands, you use it or you lose it.

ROMNEY: [...] And the president’s right in terms of the additional oil production, but none of it came on federal land. As a matter of fact, oil production is down 14 percent this year on federal land, and gas production was down 9 percent. Why? Because the president cut in half the number of licenses and permits for drilling on federal lands, and in federal waters.

Let’s look at data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which collects statistics for the federal government (PDF):

Fossil fuel production on federal lands, which includes crude oil, natural gas, and coal, has decreased in the past decade from 21.2 quadrillion BTUs in 2003 to 18.6 quads in 2011. Part of this decline can be attributed to the Macondo Well spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and the subsequent moratorium on drilling. By my math, this is a 12% decline, not the 14% number cited by Governor Romney, but he is correct about the decade-long trend.

But during the first three years of the Obama Administration, crude oil production increased by about 241 million barrels compared to the final three years of the Bush Administration:

We also see an increase of onshore (domestic) crude oil production starting around the start of the Obama administration (link):

As the EIA data suggest, energy production on federal lands has declined in the past decade, but has risen again at the start of the Obama Administration. Also worth noting is that while onshore crude oil production has increased in recent years, we are nowhere near the peak production of the 1970s.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. M Tucker 6:11 pm 10/17/2012

    For the continental US, are the geologic formations that oil companies want to drill located on Federal lands? Or are most of the currently popular formations mostly located on private land? As for coal, I’m sure we can find some prime coal formations on public lands. I wonder why both parties want to see who can despoil the most public land? Is it because we feel most comfortable in the wilderness when we can hear the rumble of diesel engines, the smell of exhaust, and see the pollution of rivers? Why are both parties trying to claim they have or will allow the most exploitation of Federal land? Have we decided to go back to the philosophy that the wilderness is only redeemed when its resources are exploited? I wonder what Theodore Roosevelt would have to say about that. I wonder if John Muir is spinning in his grave.

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  2. 2. rtcdmc 8:29 am 10/18/2012

    Actual production is a lagging indicator. The leases approved by the previous Administration are yielding results now. The same is true for the Bush Administration, which approved fewer leases than the Clinton Administration. The current Administration interrupted production with the ill-advised moratorium in the Gulf following the spill. The larger point in the debate was that the significant production increases are occurring on state and private lands, despite the current Administration’s efforts to punish carbon energy.

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