By proposing to end a century of federal control over oil and gas drilling and coal mining on government lands, Mitt Romney is making a bid for anti-Washington voters in key Western states while dangling the promise of a big reward to major campaign supporters from the energy industry.
Mr. Romney’s plan, which would turn over decision-making on drilling and mining to the states, echoes the “Drill, baby, drill” strategy that another Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, used to great effect in the 2008 campaign.
The federal government owns vast portions of states like New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Alaska. Under President Obama, officials in Washington have played a bigger role in drilling and mining decisions on federal lands in the states, and such involvement rankles many residents and energy executives, who prefer the usually lighter touch of local officials.
With gasoline prices again approaching $4 a gallon, Mr. Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, is also trying to merge energy and economic policy in a way that will make voters see increased energy production as a pocketbook issue. He said that his overall energy plan, which includes speedy approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada and new drilling off the coast of Virginia and the Carolinas, would help the country achieve energy independence and create three million drilling and manufacturing jobs.
“I’m going to change the regulatory and permitting process,” Mr. Romney said Thursday at a rally in Hobbs, N.M., in the giant Permian Basin oil fields, where companies are eager to begin drilling on millions of acres of federal lands. “Sometimes I have the impression that the whole regulatory attitude of the administration is trying to stop oil and gas and coal — that they don’t want those sources, that instead they want to get those things so expensive and so rare that wind and solar become highly cost-effective and efficient.”
Giving states control over the energy resources on millions of acres of federal lands would be a radical shift from decades of policies under both Democratic and Republican presidents, dating all the way to Theodore Roosevelt, who first set aside vast tracts of territory to preserve wildlife. Since then, the federal government has tried to balance exploitation of mineral resources with other uses like recreation and environmental protection.
“This step would be a change in national policy direction going back at least 50 years, giving control over national assets to localities,” said Michael E. Webber, associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. “Local decision makers could inhibit production that could be against the national interest or could encourage production that could pollute waters or air in another state.”
Mr. Romney said that states like North Dakota and Colorado grant drilling permits on state-owned lands in days or weeks, compared with the nearly a year that it takes the federal government to grant approval. “They found a way to do a job in a more efficient way,” he said. “On federal lands, the permitting process to actually drill and get oil or gas is extraordinarily slow.”
The Romney campaign acknowledged that such a significant policy change would require the approval of Congress. Getting such legislation passed, even if Republicans controlled the House and the Senate, would be very difficult, given certain opposition by Democrats and perhaps even some Republicans.
But even if it never passes, the proposal is liable to generate enthusiasm among voters who favor smaller government, especially in Western swing states like Nevada, which is about 80 percent federal land.
“We love it,” said Ally Isom, a deputy chief of staff to Gov. Gary R. Herbert of Utah, a Republican. “We understand better than Washington how to better manage our lands. We actually live here.”
An individual close to the Romney campaign said that Mr. Romney’s staff drafted the proposal in consultation with industry executives, including Harold Hamm, an Oklahoma billionaire who is the chairman of the campaign’s energy advisory committee and chief executive of Continental Resources, an oil and gas driller.
Just this week, the oil and gas industry gave nearly $10 million toward the Romney election effort in two fund-raisers.
The Romney aide, who said she was not authorized to speak on the record about the plan, said that any consultation with industry officials was simply to tap their expertise and did not mean the proposal was being shaped to serve their interests.
Mr. Romney’s proposal drew immediate praise from the industry, which has complained that gas production on public lands has slowed under President Obama, even while it has surged on private lands.
“Empowering states, rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all federal government approach, is the right way to increase American energy,” said Kathleen Sgamma, a vice president at Western Energy Alliance, a group of oil and gas producers.
But environmentalists and former Interior Department officials called the proposal an irresponsible break from traditional federal protection of wildlife.
“It is a preposterously bad idea — we are talking about federal trust lands that belong to the whole nation,” said Bobby McEnaney, a senior aide at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
Federico Peña, secretary of energy in the Clinton administration and now a co-chairman of Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign, said Mr. Romney’s plan would cause more problems for the oil and gas industry. “I cannot imagine a world in where there are 50 different kinds of rules and regulations for industry,” Mr. Peña said. “To see Balkanization of rules and regulation I think would drive the industry crazy.”
The federal government owns about 28 percent of the 2.27 billion acres of land in the United States. But as of March 2012, only about 37 million acres were under lease for oil and gas operations, of which about 16.3 million acres have active oil and gas production or exploration, according to the Interior Department.
Under Mr. Romney’s proposal, the federal government would still be able to set national standards for air and water pollution, which equally apply to drilling on federal and private lands, an aide said. But states would be authorized to conduct their own environmental reviews and issue drilling permits as quickly as they would like, as long as the drilling was not in protected wildlife areas or national parks.
Elected officials in states like Utah have called for federal officials to transfer or sell federal lands to the states, echoing the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, when politicians and landowners in the West advocated a similar move.
The George W. Bush administration allowed individual drilling permits to be issued without a detailed environmental review, resulting in a surge of oil and gas production.
But never before has the federal government offered simply to cede control over how federal land is developed to state officials, said John Leshy, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and an Interior Department lawyer in the Clinton administration.
“It is pretty revolutionary to say we are going to keep title but turn it over to the states,” he said. “It is a Sagebrush Rebellion with a twist.”