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Access to Federal Oil and Gas on Public Lands

Karan L. Dunnigan, Holly C. Meyer, Surface Use for Mineral Development in the New West: Finding Good Ground

The Mineral Lands Leasing Act (MLA), as amended,2 authorizes the Secretary (Secretary) of the Interior to lease rights to extract Federal minerals, including oil and gas.3 Although a lease provides the lessee with the exclusive right, under its terms, to explore for and to produce oil and gas, that right is subject to regulation by the Secretary.4 Moreover, the Secretary has broad authority to include in leases terms and conditions, including stipulations, he deems necessary for the public interest.5

The Secretary delegated to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) his authority to manage oil and gas exploration and development on federal leases. As the Secretary's delegee, BLM manages 258 million acres of public land and 700 million acres of subsurface mineral estate.6 BLM administers over 48,000 onshore oil and gas leases, of which nearly 23,000 are currently producing.7 The 77,000 Federal onshore oil and gas wells account for eleven percent of the Nation's natural gas production and five percent of domestic oil production.8 For Fiscal Years 2001 through 2006, royalty values exceeded nearly $12 billion.9

This paper will explore recent legislative, regulatory, and judicial decisions which affect a lessee's right to access public lands to explore for and to produce oil and gas. First, we will briefly describe the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the BLM's initiative