Oil Prices Down—and So Is Drilling on National Lands

Remember "Drill, baby, drill!"?

Remember the constant chorus that the nation's security depended on opening more public lands to drilling for oil and gas?

Remember the petro-patriots telling us they were drilling to free us from reliance on terror-ridden Middle Eastern states?

Well, the recent drop in oil prices to less than $50 a barrel seems to have muted that patriotism.

Oil and gas companies are "shutting down drilling rigs like crazy" and laying off thousands of workers.

And many thousands of the acres that were rushed into lease sales in the last few years because it was so urgent to "Drill, baby, drill!" undoubtedly will be left idle until prices rise again. That's the way it has always been with oil, which is just another commodity subject to the ups and downs of the world economy.

Sportsmen's groups – for that matter, most outdoors groups – have never been opposed to all drilling on public lands. Instead they have supported a measured approach, which is best summarized by the group Sportsmen for Sensible Energy Development.

The approach is based on the principle that some federal land is valuable for fish, wildlife and recreation to be drilled. The rest should be opened in a measured, phased approach that provides enough time for careful study of the impacts on fish, wildlife, and the environment. That approach also helps cushion the industry – and state governments that rely on the royalties – from the shocks of downturns like this one.

"We have always taken the position that phased development under a master plan makes more sense not only for fish and wildlife, but for the industry as well," said Ed Arnett, director of the Center for Responsible Energy Development. "Right now we have something like 43 million acres of leases that are sitting idle, 20 million of those on land. And with the price dropping like this, we'll see more."

Those acres are essentially not subject to fish and wildlife management for the life of the lease. Many of those leases will be handed back to the government, leaving a patchwork pattern of development that fragments wildlife habitat.

"We should never be in a hurry to lease these lands, because the oil and gas isn't going anywhere – and that means the industry will be coming back," Arnett said.

Even with rigs being idled, conservation groups expect congress to push ahead with efforts to roll back some of the few environmental reforms enacted under President Obama to put some caution into the energy rush.

And that makes no sense, either. Despite the claims from the oil lobby's men and women in Congress, domestic drilling under President Obama has been higher than during either Bush administration or under Clinton.

When that debate starts, sportsmen should ask their congressmen to explain the new slogan from the oil industry:

"Shut down those rigs, baby! Shut 'em down!"