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In our opinion: Federal land use policy preventing Utah energy independence

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 29 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012 photo, an oil drilling rig drill into the Gypsum Hills near Medicine Lodge, Kan. An emerging oil boom has been sparked by modern technologies using horizontal drilling and a technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” to coax out oil and gas. The potential production from the Mississippian Lime formation here - and its impact on domestic energy supplies - remains uncertain. But the use of the technology to unlock energy supplies previously unavailable in the United States is now in play in places like Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Orlin Wagner, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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The national unemployment rate has been over 8 percent for three and a half years. Here in Utah, unemployment stands at 6 percent. While it's nice to be lower than the national average, it's startling to learn that our jobless rate is still twice as high North Dakota's. Why is that?

One word: fracking.

North Dakota's natural gas production and aggressive energy policy has created a sustained boom in their state economy. It has also created thousands of long-term, high-paying jobs, which is why their unemployment rate hasn't risen above 4.2 percent, despite the recent recession.

Well, it just so happens that we have plentiful natural resources here in the Beehive State. So why can't Utah pursue a similar strategy? Because of shifting federal land use policy.

One of President Barack Obama's early official acts in office was to summarily cancel 77 of Utah's oil and gas leases on federal land. These leases had been in the works for the better part of a decade, but they were stripped away with a stroke of a pen.

Not only did that harm Eastern Utah's energy-based economy, it also undermined the confidence of energy producers looking to the future. Since years of expensive preparations can be arbitrarily wiped out by the whims of Washington, oil and natural gas developers are now understandably reticent to risk their financial resources in such an uncertain regulatory environment.

Because it would allow for increased regulatory flexibility and the potential for increased investment in energy production on Utah's public lands, we welcome the increased power and authority for state governments proposed in Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's recently released comprehensive energy plan.

Gov. Romney's proposal would give individual states leeway to develop their own individual energy policies unfettered by the interference of the federal government. It could unleash innovation across the country as state and local governments become free to pioneer policies that could make them competitive in seeking investment in energy jobs and the tax dollars that come along with them.

What Gov. Romney's plan cannot fully address at this moment, however, is the inherent uncertainty of federal land-use planning. His plan is friendly to increased investment in energy production. But as long as the ownership of our resource-rich public lands rests with the federal government, a different president or Congress, acting as landlords, could undermine such investments with policies that serve a very different political agenda.

Like Utah, North Dakota enjoys a bounty of natural resources. But unlike Utah, North Dakota's lands are not managed by a fickle federal landlord. We welcome Gov. Romney's thinking about increased flexibility in the management of federal lands. But until title itself is transferred, we fear that federal land use policy will be too uncertain and unreliable to attract the kind of meaningful long-term investments that could genuinely point toward energy independence.

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