03/30/2011 04:02 pm ET Updated May 30, 2011

Oil Exploration in the Rockies: Whatever It Takes

I have no doubt that if there were any way to drill for oil beneath our national parks and protected wilderness areas, industry would seize the moment.

It is the reason why complaints by oil men and their congressional sympathizers that too much public land is off limits to development should be greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism. These disenchanted souls appear to be angling for as much access as they can achieve, especially in the Rocky Mountain West, and preferably with no holds barred.

But exclusion is not the sum total of energy entrepreneurs' discontent. Even on public lands where they have secured leases, they strenuously object to "excessive" government environmental restrictions on their commercial activity.

They seem a bit harried, don't they? Well, don't shed tears for these folks (whom for the most part are hardly starving). The U.S. Interior Department estimates that only 38 percent of the oil and 16 percent of the natural gas in the Rocky Mountain West are off limits to development, largely because of location within national parks. That leaves industry at present with some 41 million acres of western federal lands under lease, of which just 12 million acres are being actively worked. Why don't the oil men fully address the rest of their leases before seeking to bulldoze more public lands for possible development?

As far as being excluded from large tracts of public land is concerned, our nation has 700 million federally owned acres of which only 80 million are totally off limits to industrial development (because of various protective wilderness designations.) That leaves nearly 90 percent potentially open for energy exploration. To those who think that is not enough, let's just say there is more to human existence than the extraction of mineral ore. And to those who reject that premise, you will be disappointed to learn that government projections of peak oil production in the Rocky Mountain West would lower gasoline prices by a paltry three cents at most.

How about the "excessive" regulation which industry insists slows production on operational sites and discourages exploration on many inactive ones?

What is red tape for some is salvation for others. Many of the mitigating restrictions in question have been instituted to keep energy extraction on public lands from polluting the surrounding air and water, from harming wildlife, and from diminishing cherished recreational and scenic values. If those protections lengthen the production process, then as House Speaker John Boehner would say, "so be it."

Industry representatives respond that environmental concerns are overstated because the drilling technology has been perfected to minimize disturbance of the land surface. But their rosy depiction does not account for the supporting infrastructure of access roads, transmission lines, and storage tanks. If these are not scrupulously limited in scope, they can wreak havoc with the environmental quality of undeveloped public land.

A recent Interior Department survey conveys a cautionary tale. It found that after four years of industry harvesting natural gas from a large tract in Wyoming, the local mule deer population had declined by nearly 50 percent, the greater sage grouse was on the verge of being wiped out, and some nearby rural communities were experiencing air pollution for the first time.

Sounds like environmental restrictions on energy extraction might need to be strengthened rather than relaxed.