Energy Development on Public Land in the United States


Pennsylvania State University, Altoona College Altoona, Pennsylvania, United States

1. Introduction

2. Energy for All?

3. General Phases of Public Land Administration

4. Establishing the Legal Framework

5. Making Legal Exception: Native American Communities

6. History of Energy Development on Public Land

7. Debating Ownership: The Sagebrush Rebellion

8. A Symbolic Contest: Alaska

9. Battle Lines in the Current Debate


application for permit to drill (APD) An application to drill a well; submitted by a lessee or operator to the Bureau of Land Management.

Bureau of Land Management (BLM) The Department of the Interior agency responsible for managing most federal onshore subsurface minerals.

environmental impact statement (EIS) A written analysis of the impacts on the natural, social, and economic environment of a proposed project or resource manage­ment plan.

lease An authorization to possess and use public land for a period of time sufficient to amortize capital investments in the land.

public lands The lands owned by the federal government, including parks, monuments, wilderness areas, refuges, underground mineral reserves, marine sanctuaries, historic parks, forests, and seashores.

withdrawal An action that restricts the disposition of public lands and that holds them for specific public purposes.

Public lands in the United States have provided supplies of raw energy resources for over a century. The story of the harvest and administration of energy
from natural resources reveals the public debate and contest that often results when resources are owned in common. Recent developments suggest that future use of these resources will continue to be hotly debated.


When Woody Guthrie wrote the song This Land Is Your Land, his rough-toned voice instructed Amer­icans to recall that ‘‘this land was made for you and me.’’ Nowhere is this American ideal more obvious than in the nation’s publicly owned lands—or so it would seem. Yet the spirit of Guthrie’s idealism has rarely penetrated the administration of the more than 600 million acres of land that belong to each citizen. One-third of all national land is administered by the federal government and is owned collectively by the people of the nation. For a variety of reasons, including climate and the late entry of Euro-Amer­ican settlers, most of the federal land can be found in the American West.

Public lands include parks, monuments, wild­erness areas, refuges, underground mineral reserves, marine sanctuaries, historic parks, forests, and seashores. Throughout American history, the admin­istration of this great national resource has been tied to politics and the powerful elements of economic development. The use of public land sites and particularly the harvest of natural resources existing on them have been consistently debated in recent years. Should these lands be viewed as vast store­houses of resources on which our nation depends? Or are federal lands intended more for preservation, regardless of valuable resources that might be found within their borders? And, of course, when develop­ment takes place, who should gain the financial benefit?

As a matter of existing law, mineral resources on public lands exist as national property, primarily due to specific strategies to foster development in the western United States. Outside variables, including the needs of war or domestic crisis or even presidential preference, influence the perceptions of mineral resources, particularly those resources re­lated to energy production. Although the use and availability of such resources vary with the philoso­phy of each presidential administration, each Amer­ican leader has viewed these energy sources as an important tool for economic development of com­munities in the western United States. The harvest of resources on public lands carries economic benefits locally and nationally (see Table I).

Although wood must be included as an energy resource that has been harvested from federal lands, the major sources in the 20th century have included: coal, oil, natural gas, shale, uranium, and geother­mal. In recent years, there has additionally been a concerted effort to develop alternative energy re­sources (such as solar and wind) on public lands. By the end of the 20th century, the energy industry estimated that Americans received 30% of their fuels for energy production from public lands.

Leave a reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>