'Idle' Oil Field Fallacy

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Because a lease is not producing, critics tag it as "idle" when, in reality, it is typically being actively explored and developed. Multiply these real-world circumstances by hundreds or thousands of leases, and you end up with the seemingly damning but inaccurate figures our critics cite.

A bill introduced in Congress this week would "compel" oil and natural gas companies to produce from federal lands they are leasing. If only it were that easy to find and produce oil. Imagine, an act of Congress that could do what geology could not.

These lawmakers ask why oil and gas companies want more access to federal lands to drill if they aren't using all of the 68 million acres they already have? Anyone with even the most basic understanding of how oil and natural gas are produced and this should include many members of Congress knows that claims of "idle" leases are a diversionary feint.

A company bids for and buys a lease because it believes there is a possibility that it may yield enough oil or natural gas to make the cost of the lease, and the costs of exploration and production, commercially viable. The U.S. government received $3.7 billion from company bids in a single lease sale in March 2008.

However, until the actual exploration is complete, a company does not know whether the lease will be productive. If, through exploration, it finds there is no oil or natural gas underneath a lease or that there is not enough to justify the tremendous investment required to bring it to the surface the company cuts its losses by moving on to more promising leases. Yet it continues to pay rent on the lease, atop a leasing bonus fee.

In addition, if the company does not develop the lease within a certain period of time, it must return it to the federal government, forfeiting all its costs. All during this active exploration and evaluation phase, however, the lease is listed as "nonproducing."

Obviously, companies want to start producing from active fields as soon as possible. However, there are a number of time-consuming steps to be taken before they can do so: Delineation wells must be drilled to size the field, government permits must be obtained, and complex production facilities must be engineered and installed. All this takes considerable time, and during that time, the lease is also listed as "nonproducing."

Because a lease is not producing, critics tag it as "idle" when, in reality, it is typically being actively explored and developed. Multiply these real-world circumstances by hundreds or thousands of leases, and you end up with the seemingly damning but inaccurate figures our critics cite.

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