WASHINGTON, DC, January 7, 2010 (ENS) – Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has announced changes to the federal onshore oil and gas leasing program that he says will improve protections for land, water, and wildlife and reduce potential conflicts that lead to costly and time-consuming protests and litigation of leases.

The reforms pleased conservationists, who say they will provide greater environmental oversight, more public involvement, increased certainty for industry, and abetter return to American taxpayers for energy development on federal lands. The oil and gas industry is upset over the additional regulatory hurdles companies must meet before they are allowed to drill for oil and gas on public lands.

“The previous administration’s ‘anywhere, anyhow’ policy on oil and gas development ran afoul of communities, carved up the landscape, and fueled costly conflicts that created uncertainty for investors and industry,” Salazar told reporters on a teleconference Wednesday. “We need a fresh look – from inside the federal government and from outside – at how we can better manage Americans’ energy resources.”

Salazar says the department has been struggling for months over what to do with the Bush oil and gas leasing plan for the 2007-2012 period, which was set aside by the courts because the Bureau of Land Management failed to do analysis required by law. “We have had to spend lots of time redoing the mistakes of the previous administration,” said Salazar. “We have to have certainty in moving forward, that’s what we are attempting to do with these reforms.”

BLM Director Bob Abbey told reporters, “The new approach can help restore certainty and predictability to a system currently burdened by constant legal challenges and protests. It will also support the BLM’s multiple-use mission, which requires management of the public lands to provide opportunities for activities such as recreation, conservation, and energy development—both conventional and renewable.”

Under the reformed oil and gas leasing policy, BLM will provide:

  • Comprehensive interdisciplinary reviews that take into account site-specific considerations for individual lease sales. Resource Management Plans will continue to provide programmatic-level guidance, but individual parcels nominated for leasing will undergo increased internal and external coordination, public participation, interdisciplinary review of available information, confirmation of Resource Management Plan conformance as well as site visits to parcels when necessary;
  • Greater public involvement in developing Master Leasing and Development Plans for areas where intensive new oil and gas extraction is anticipated so that other important natural resource values can be fully considered prior to making an irreversible commitment to develop an area;
  • Leadership in identifying areas where new oil and gas leasing will occur. The bureau will continue to accept industry expressions of interest regarding where to offer leases, but will emphasize leasing in already-developed areas and near areas that have been developed will plan carefully for leasing and development in new areas.

Abbey said he anticipates a slowdown in the number of parcels nominated for leasing to allow the BLM to conduct these new reviews. But he says the increased opportunity for public participation and a more thorough environmental review process and documentation can help reduce the number of protests filed as well as enhance BLM’s ability to resolve protests prior to lease sales.

Flare on a drilling rig in Utah (Photo by Somewhere Outside)

American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Jack Gerard objects to the new policy, saying, “About 9.2 million Americans rely on the oil and gas industry for their jobs. By imposing these unnecessary additional hurdles, American jobs will be threatened along with the economic opportunities afforded by oil and gas development.”

“Since Secretary Salazar has taken his position,” said Gerard, “revenues from federal onshore oil and gas leasing in the five states that make up the Inter-Mountain West – Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – have plummeted over 80 percent, and the amount of total acreage leased by the government has shrunk to the lowest level on record. In Wyoming alone, nearly 70 percent fewer lease acres were issued by the federal government in 2009 than in 2008,” Gerard said.

Secretary Salazar said, “We are moving forward to allowing exploration and development in the right places. These reforms will stop the logjam seen over last several years created because the headlong rush to leasing has led to a rush to litigation. We have a huge problem,” he said. “By doing it right we will create certainty and smarter access to our public land.”

But Gerard contends, “This troubling trend of hobbling companies’ ability to develop much-needed domestic energy supplies will not create certainty for investors, as Secretary Salazar suggested today. Instead it will make America more dependent on foreign energy and continue to constrain government budgets.”

Conservationists said the reforms will restore much-needed balance to the federal energy program. Under the Bush administration, oil and gas drilling was elevated above all other uses on federal public lands, resulting in a dramatic acceleration in energy development. This energy boom has caused significant impacts to the environment and communities, including air and water pollution, toxic spills, declines in wildlife populations and public health concerns, several groups said in a joint statement.

“After a decade when the fate of our public lands was left in the hands of the oil industry, it’s refreshing to hear that the BLM is going to take charge of oil and gas management and will start factoring in the protection of treasured landscapes, sensitive wildlife habitats, and municipal watersheds into management decisions,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Laramie, Wyoming.

Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition said, “These common sense reforms will allow for continued energy production while simultaneously protecting the clean air, pure water, treasured landscapes and abundant wildlife that are the backbone of economic prosperity in the West.”

Conservation groups were particularly pleased with proposed changes to the categorical exclusion process, which the Goverment Accountability Office recently found enabled oil and gas companies to bypass environmental protections.

The use of categorical exclusions, or CXs, established by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, allow the BLM to approve some oil and gas development activities based on existing environmental or planning analysis without fresh reviews.

Under the new policy, in accordance with White House Council on Environmental Quality guidelines, the BLM will not use these categorical exclusions in cases involving “extraordinary circumstances” such as impacts to protected species, historic or cultural resources, or human health and safety.

Steve Bloch, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said,”Utah’s remarkable redrock wilderness suffered greatly under the prior administration’s policies that the secretary now proposes to change. The wilderness resources in places like the White River, Upper Desolation Canyon and Labyrinth Canyon were targeted for leasing and development and endured the over-use of categorical exclusions and inadequate public input.”

“If the Interior Department succeeds in striking a balance between protecting sensitive lands and developing oil and gas,” said Bloch, “it opens a door to a new day when conservation groups can spend less effort trying to clean up problem projects and could allow the American people to engage as partners in creating a responsible energy future.”

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