What would happen to the environment if U.S. federal lands were open to oil drilling?

Since 1872, crowds have delighted in the eruption of Yellowstone National Park's Old Faithful geyser.
Since 1872, crowds have delighted in the eruption of Yellowstone National Park's Old Faithful geyser.
Buddy Mays/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Roughly every 90 minutes or so, Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park erupts with astonishing regularity to the delight of onlookers. If it weren't for Woodrow Wilson naming Y­ellowstone the first national park more than 100 years ago, many people wouldn't even know geysers like Old Faithful existed. But since that day, Americans have been able to rely on the National Park Service to maintain scores of unique landmarks across the country. And it's as true today as it was when the park system was established in 1872: During times of economic instability and fluctuating gas prices, it's nice to have something like Old Faithful you can count on.

­But what if the famous geyser stopped spewing water and spewed oil instead? What if national parks and the like were stripped of their protected status and declared fair ground for oil drilling?

Since the creation of Yellowstone, more than 84 million acres have been added to the National Park Service [source: National Park Service]. Add to that the 94 million acres of national wildlife refuges, countless national forests and other managed public lands, and you have more than 650 million acres that fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government [source: Scheer/National Atlas]. Along with trustworthy geysers, these areas encompass some of the most treasured lands left in the country: the dense Eastern forests of Appalachia, the red rock canyons of Utah and the rugged mountain ranges of Alaska. They're also vital sanctuaries to a variety of species found nowhere else on Earth. And it falls to the federal government to protect them.

The federal government, however, is also saddled with meeting the public's expectation of economic growth possible on that land. This may explain why it already leases 44.5 million acres to oil and gas companies -- a total of 77,000 producing wells [source: The Wilderness Society]. In fact, people are prospecting for oil at this moment in places like Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, the Rainey Preserve in Louisiana and Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming.

Yet because experts estimate that more than half of the natural gas available in the U.S. is buried beneath federal lands, oil companies want more. Right now, acquiring a lease and gaining drilling access can be a lengthy process, but what if big oil had a blank check to drill on U.S. federal land?

­Can oil rigs and the environment coexist? The answer is both yes and no, depending on whom you ask. Some detractors, of course, say oil and wildlife just don't mix. However, proponents argue that new technologies enable them to drill "smarter, farther, deeper, and cleaner" than ever before [source: U.S. Department of Energy]. Find out about those new technologies next.