Oil, gas production up in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY -- Oil and gas drilling is up across the West despite declining production on federal lands, industry officials said Wednesday, clarifying an argument the night before during the presidential debate.

Utah and industry officials say oil and gas production was up across the region and country last year because of drilling on state and private lands, not federal lands.

"We really believe that the huge increase in oil and gas production across the nation has come despite the federal government, not because of it," Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based trade group, told Utah lawmakers during an energy hearing Wednesday.

Utah energy officials shared similar news with lawmakers of an overall increase in oil and gas production despite a dip on federal lands.

However, three major gas-drilling projects recently approved for Utah by the Obama administration promise huge production increases.

In 2011, oil production in Utah increased 14.5 percent and gas production was up 5.7 percent, thanks to drilling on state and trust lands, said Cody Stewart, energy advisor to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. Stewart said the increase came even as production on federal lands in Utah dropped.

That was Mitt Romney's point in the debate Tuesday night with President Barack Obama.

The Republican challenger focused on declining production in federal areas. He didn't mention it was largely related to the moratorium on offshore drilling imposed after the April 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"As a matter of fact, oil production is down 14 percent this year on federal land, and gas production was down 9 percent. Why? Because the president cut in half the number of licenses and permits for drilling on federal lands and in federal waters," Romney said.

Obama had a quick answer.

"Very little of what Governor Romney just said is true. We've opened up public lands," Obama said. "We're actually drilling more on public lands than in the previous administration and my _ the previous president was an oilman."

The statements from both candidates are largely true, but they're offering different timeframes and separate figures.

According to a U.S. Department of Energy survey published in spring, sales of oil from federal areas fell 14 percent between 2010 and 2011 and sales of natural gas production fell 9 percent.

The declines are mostly due to the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history and analysts expect Gulf production to soon exceed pre-spill levels.

The same Energy Department survey says that despite the 2011 decline, oil production from federal areas is up 13 percent since Obama took office in 2008, supporting his point.

Natural gas production has been declining on federal lands for years because drillers are finding vast gas reserves in several states that are quicker to access than most federally controlled areas.

Utah officials grumble that the federal government owns and controls more than two-thirds of the state. They say federal officials are holding back drilling with nettlesome and time-consuming regulations, encouraging drillers to look elsewhere.

"We are second-class citizens," Stewart said.

In response, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has made much of federal approval for the big gas-drilling projects in eastern Utah.

Even so, Herbert' signed legislation earlier this year giving the federal government until 2014 to relinquish control of 4,700 square miles of land in Utah _ national forests, range lands, national recreation areas and the vast Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which has huge coal reserves.

The Utah Legislature authorized a lawsuit if the federal government doesn't comply. Legislative attorneys warned the action is almost certain to fail.