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Has energy production increased or decreased on federal lands?


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.

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

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