In an aggressive push by the Bush administration to open more public land to oil and gas production, the Interior Department has quit conducting environmental reviews and seeking comments from local residents every time drilling companies propose new wells.
Field officials have been told to begin looking at issuing permits based on past studies of an entire project, even though some of those assessments may be outdated. The instructions are in a directive from the department’s Bureau of Land Management expected to cover hundreds of anticipated new drilling applications.
President Bush and Congress authorized the streamlining as part of a 1,724-page energy bill signed into law in August. BLM officials, saying the need for energy supplies is immediate, showed unusual speed implementing it. Kathleen Clarke, the agency’s director, sent out the new guidance Sept. 30.
“Yes, it is a priority of the White House,” BLM Deputy Director Jim Hughes said in an interview. “We are moving expeditiously to implement the law. We think all these items will increase the supply this winter. However, everyone is saying it won’t be enough to wipe out the impact of the hurricanes and all that.”
The energy bill created new “categorical exclusions” under the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act for allowing new oil, gas and geothermal wells without first conducting environmental studies or soliciting public comment on them. The exclusions from normal permit requirements cover instances when less than 150 acres and no more than five acres in any one spot are disturbed and where nearby drilling has occurred in the past five years.
“We don’t think there will be any environmental degradation,” Hughes said. “It’s basically going into areas where you’ve already got stuff happening, where you’ve got existing NEPA work that had been completed. We think in many cases this is just duplicative work.”
Energy producers would still be required to comply with other environmental laws, such as those intended to protect endangered species, air and water quality and cultural artifacts.
Rocky Mountains expected to be drilled
So far, no new permits have been issued under the new guidance. But Interior officials expect it to spur more drilling on open ranges and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Those include Powder River Basin of Wyoming, the Uintah Basin of Utah and the San Juan Basin of New Mexico and Colorado, all areas where drilling has already boomed in recent years.
Other areas ripe for the expedited permits are near parkland, such as Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, though not within national parks or wilderness areas.
Last year, the bureau approved 6,052 drilling permits from about 7,000 applications submitted — a 60 percent jump in new permits over those issued in 2003. This year, BLM expects it will approve 7,000 of the 8,000 new applications, Hughes said.
Environmentalists say they will continue to insist that environmental reviews are up-to-date.
“They have to have a fairly recent analysis of the impacts before they can apply these categorical exclusions,” said Dave Alberswerth, public lands director for The Wilderness Society. “If they’re planning to improperly apply these exemptions ... in places where there are old land use plans that are out of date, then they are asking for legal trouble.”
More land to drill
The government had 55,385 square miles of public lands leased out for oil and natural gas production last year, but only a third of it — 18,236 square miles — was involved in actual energy production. Nearly all the leases BLM considered nonproducing have never had an exploratory well drilled, or even a single application for a permit to drill filed with BLM.
“If you look at the actual facts on the ground, they have thousands of more drilling permits in their pockets than they can even drill on,” Alberswerth said. “So why is Congress or the administration always looking for ways to exempt the wealthiest companies in the world from their environmental responsibilities?”
Lee Fuller, a spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said environmental groups have misused the law to delay drilling permits. But Fuller also said the administration’s hoped-for boost in energy production might not occur until later.
“It’s hard to judge anything in terms of what might happen this winter,” he said. “I don’t think anybody has a clear sense of things. But whether it happens this winter, or it’s available next spring or summer when there’s also a demand for it, you have to be ready.”