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1: Executive Summary

2: About Oil/Gas Leases

3: Oil & Gas Impacts

4: Bush Admin Rollbacks

5: The Spin on Drilling

6: Hotspot: Roan Plateau, CO

7: Hotspot: Otero Mesa, NM

8: Hotspot: Rocky Mtn Front, MT

9: Hotspot: Powder River Basin, WY

10: Hotspot: Book Cliffs, UT

11: Oil, Gas, Political Cash

12: EWG Recommendations

13: Methodology

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Slick Talk Attempts to Rig Oil and Gas Debate

Key administration officials and members of Congress have been using the "tested" language of pollster and political consultant Frank Luntz to garner support for opening environmentally sensitive areas across the inter-mountain West for oil and natural gas drilling.

Luntz Memo on Energy

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Luntz's widely-circulated 2002 "Straight Talk" memo outlines talking points on energy and the environment, among many other subjects. While the chapter on Energy focuses on coaching Republicans to win the debate about oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the language and concepts also have been used in the debates surrounding western oil and gas resources. The Luntz memo has become a guide for politicians looking for effective ways of communicating messages about the need to expedite drilling in sensitive areas. Often the language used does not reflect reality, as discussed below.


"Give citizens the idea that progress is being frustrated by over-reaching government, and you will hit a very strong strain in the American psyche." (Luntz Memo, pg. 136)


229 Million Acres of Western Land Offered or Leased for Oil and Gas Drilling Since 1982

At a town hall meeting in Arkansas on August 3, 2004, Vice President Cheney told the community that domestic declines in production were driven by western land use restrictions: "In fact, our production is declining. In part, that's because we made a decision as a country — you and I might not have agreed with it — but, basically, we've taken large chunks of the country and put it off limits to any kind of exploration or development... Large parts of the Rocky Mountain West are off limits." But EWG's analysis of government records shows that the U.S. government has, in fact, given the oil and gas industry broad access to public land for drilling, since 1982 offering for drilling 229 milion acres in 12 western states, an area greater than the combined size of Montana, Utah, and Wyoming.


Interactive Version of This Map

Source: EWG analysis of leasing and drilling records in 12 western states, contained in the Bureau of Land Management's Land and Mineral Records 2000 database, acquired by EWG May 15 2004.

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"Using modern drilling techniques — such as 3-D seismic to locate oil and directional drilling to recover the oil — means that only a very small area will actually be impacted by development." (Luntz Memo, pg. 119)


Wall-to-Wall Oil and Gas Wells

Luntz and others tout the benefits of low-impact, advanced technologies such as those that allow companies to drill multiple wells extending down and outward from a single location. This type of "directional drilling," they argue, reduces the land area disturbed by oil and gas operations. In a Saint Paul, Minnesota speech introducing his energy plan, President Bush claimed that "Advanced new technologies allow entrepreneurs and risk-takers to find oil and to extract it in ways that leave nature undisturbed. Where oil is found underneath sensitive landscapes, rigs can stand miles away from the oil field and tap a reservoir at an angle." The energy plan includes the same argument, that "...companies have adopted innovative techniques to reduce the possible impacts of exploration and development," an idea used to justify proposals for drilling on sensitive western lands.

aerial photo of sludge pit

Such technologies exist, but the evidence suggests that they aren't widely used, or when they are used environmental impacts are still substantial. Wyoming's Jonah natural gas field, pictured here, exemplifies the tightly-spaced pattern of wells that is required to efficiently extract natural gas through conventional vertical drilling. Operators said in 1998 that 497 wells drilled over 10-15 years would be adequate to extract the natural gas in the Jonah area. Just five years later in 2003, BLM reported that oil and gas companies had drilled 500 wells in the field and the Casper Star-Tribune reported that operators may ultimately drill 3,100 wells in the Jonah area (Amos 2003).

Earlier this year, the BLM backtracked on provisions that would have required directional drilling in New Mexico's fragile Otero Mesa, reducing from 160,000 to just 40,000 the number of acres requiring such technology, while allowing conventional drilling and minimal wildlife protections on 1.4 million acres of the 2 million-acre area. (BLM DEIS 2000; BLM FEIS 2003a). When innovative, low-impact technology is the exception rather than the rule on one of the country's most valuable ecological resources, it becomes apparent that the use of such technologies to protect land and wildlife is likely not an industry or a government priority.

On Colorado's Roan Plateau, a spectacular, wildlife-rich region above the Colorado River, a proposed oil and gas development plan includes the use of directional drilling, but even so, would result in drastic impacts. In its 2003 Reasonable Foreseeable Development plan, the Bureau of Land Management discusses a well spacing of 10 acres across much of the plateau. To minimize impacts, BLM proposes directional drilling. But even with this innovative technology, well pads would be spaced just 40 acres apart, the equivalent of one well for every four city blocks (BLM 2003b). The visual impact of these wells in the wide open vistas of the plateau would be substantial. The environmental impacts of oil and gas development in such a sensitive area are incalculable.

At an August 2004 Arkansas town hall meeting Vice President Cheney boasted about the effectiveness of drilling technology in protecting valuable environmental resources: "The technology has gotten so good that, frankly, we can develop those kinds of resources without doing any environmental damage." Wells drilled at a spacing equivalent to every four city blocks, and the pipes, roads, tanks, holding ponds, and compressor stations needed to sustain these operations, would likely not qualify as development that would do no damage to the surrounding, precious environmental resources.

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"...it's 'EXPLORING,' NOT 'DRILLING...' (Luntz Memo, pg. 116)


It's Drilling...and a host of other impacts

aerial photo of sludge pit

In public communications on energy issues, Administration officials have followed Luntz's advice, choosing the term "exploration" over "drilling." For instance, when President Bush announced his administration's energy plan in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2001, he asserted that "...our ability to develop gas resources has been hampered by restrictions on natural gas exploration."

But contrary to the rhetoric, it is, eventually, drilling, and many other large-scale operations that move earth, water, oil, and gas, and that involve heavy machinery and other supplies. Companies must drill to extract oil and gas, and that generally means building roads, hauling in heavy equipment, running large compressors, disposing of toxic drilling fluids, jeopardizing ground water supplies and other impacts.

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"Always, always, always stress the importance of national security." (Luntz memo pg. 116)


Drilling in the West won't wean us from foreign energy

Luntz advises stressing national security and our need to reduce our dependence on foreign energy in arguments on energy policy. Politicians have used this argument to sell proposals to increase oil and gas industry access to western lands. In his State of the Union address in January 2004, President Bush asserted to Congress that his bill would "make America less dependent on foreign sources of energy" (Bush 2004). Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has stated that Congress must enact "a comprehensive national energy policy that balances domestic energy production with conservation and efficiency efforts to enhance the security of the United States and decrease dependence on foreign sources of oil" in his communications on the need to pass the National Energy Policy Act, a piece of legislation that would open up sensitive lands for new drilling, and that has been widely criticized for failing to include sufficient incentives for conservation and energy efficiency (Frist 2004).

Energy experts within the administration disagree that increased access to domestic supplies of oil and gas would wean this country from foreign energy. The Energy Information Administration, a data analysis group under the Department of Energy, found that domestic production will decline and our dependence on foreign oil will continue its steady climb even if the proposed energy plan is fully implemented (EIA 2004b).

Imports are at an all-time high. In 2002, the US imported 56 precent of its petroleum products. By 2025 EIA projections show we will import nearly 70 percent, a figure that would be reduced by only 1.2 percent if the President's plans were fully adopted, with drilling in the US expanded dramatically into areas that are currently protected for their unique wildlife or wilderness qualities.

In fact, imports of crude oil under the Bush plan, projected at 13.38 million barrels of crude oil per day in 2015, reflect a mere 0.3 percent decline from the 13.47 million barrels per day projected under current policies. This is just one of the facts that led Bush's energy experts at EIA to find that the President's plan would have a "negligible" impact on our dependence on foreign oil (Committee on Government Reform 2004; EIA 2004a; EIA 2004b).

Many of the sensitive areas proposed to be opened for drilling contain very little oil and gas. According to an industry estimate, which may present a best-case scenario, drilling for natural gas in New Mexico's rare grassland known as Otero Mesa will yield one trillion cubic feet of natural gas. At our nation's current rate of consumption, that's enough gas to supply us for less than 16 days (Albuquerque Journal 2004, USDOE Natural Gas 2004).

aerial photo of sludge pit

Another estimate tells a similar story. According to a recent study by three federal agencies, the five western basins containing "most of the onshore natural gas and much of the oil under public ownership within the 48 contiguous states" would supply only about 8 years of natural gas and a mere 279 days of oil at current rates of consumption. These figures may overestimate the amount of oil and gas that can be extracted, because the agencies assessed the oil and gas that were technically recoverable, not economically recoverable (Energy Inventory 2003, USDOE Natural Gas 2004, EIA Petroleum Products). In any event, six-and-a-half years of energy is hardly enough to win the battle for energy independence and national security. To reach those goals, we will have to invest in increased energy efficiency and renewable, home-grown energy such as solar and wind power.

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"Once again, a picture is worth a thousand words. After viewing before and after photos of explored areas, the people we tested were pleasantly surprised by the minimal impact — one small cap — that is possible with today's technology. Whenever you can, bring photos to illustrate the advancements in technology." (Luntz memo pg. 118)


Frequently, what is possible does not reflect what is practiced

aerial photo of gas well field

Too often, oil and gas drilling consumes vast stretches of land, such as the development in Utah's Uinta Basin and and the Jonah well field in Wyoming's Green River Basin (pictured on the right), when lower-impact technology is available.

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Related Resources

Luntz Memo on Energy

When polling showed voters worried about the environmental impacts of the GOP's energy plans, "Republican energy language" from focus group guru Frank Luntz helped change the subject.

EWG Analysis | Download Luntz Memo on Energy (PDF file)


  1. Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque Journal). 2004. Corrections. January 20, 2004, B1. The correction noted that an earlier story should have quoted "George Yates, president of Roswell-based HEYCO, as having said that the New Mexico side of the [Otero Mesa] basin could hold as much as 1 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas" (brackets EWG's). The earlier article should be cited as follows: Soussan, Tania. 2004. Activists Want Land Protected. Albuquerque Journal. January 11, 2004, B1.
  2. Amos, John. Testimony Before the U.S. House of Representative Resources Committee. September 17, 2003.
  3. Bureau of Land Management (BLM Draft EIS). 2000. Draft Resource Management Plan Amendment (RMPA) and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Federal fluid minerals leasing and development in Sierra and Otero Counties. Accessed online at http://www.nm.blm.gov/lcfo
  4. Bureau of Land Management (BLM FEIS). 2003a. Proposed Resource Management Plan Amendment and Final Environmental Impact Statement for Federal Fluid Minerals Leasing and Development in Sierra and Otero Counties. Accessed online June 3, 2004 at http://www.nm.blm.gov/lcfo
  5. Bureau of Land Management (BLM FEIS). 2003b. Roan Plateau Planning Area. Oil and Gas Reasonable Foreseeable Development. May 29, 2003. Accessed online July 8, 2004 at http://www.saveroanplateau.org/background.htm.
  6. Bush [President George W. Bush] 2004. State of the Union Address. Jan 20, 2004. Accessed online July 21, 2004 at http://www.whitehouse.gov
  7. Committee on Government Reform [U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform - Minority Staff]. 2004. U.S. dependence on foreign oil worsens under administration's energy policies. Special Investigations Division. June 14, 2004. Accessed online July 21, 2004 at http://www.house.gov/reform/min/inves_energy/.
  8. EIA [Energy Information Administration] 2004a. Annual energy outlook 2004 with projects to 2025. Acceessed online July 21, 2004 at http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/aeo/.
  9. EIA [Energy Information Administration] 2004b. Summary impacts of modeled provisions of the 2003 conference energy bill. February 2004. Accessed online July 21, 2004 at http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf
  10. Energy Information Administration (EIA Petroleum Products). 2002. Annual Energy Review, 2002. Petroleum Products Supplied by Type, 1949-2002. Accessed online July 14, 2004 at http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/petro.html.
  11. Frist, Bill, M.D. 2004. Issues — Energy. Accessed online August 8, 2004 at http://frist.senate.gov/index.cfm?

  12. U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE Natural Gas). 2004. Natural Gas Fundamentals from Resource to Market. Accessed online May 24, 2004 at http://www.energy.gov/engine
  13. U.S. Departments of Interior, Agriculture, Energy (Energy Inventory 2003). 2003. Scientific Inventory of Onshore Federal Lands' Oil and Gas Resources and Reserves and the Extent and Nature of Restrictions or Impediments to Their Development. Accessed online May 27, 2004 at http://www.doi.gov/epca/.

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