In the wake of the Gulf spill, Salazar says new rules for onshore oil and gas drilling will give local communities more say in energy development plans
SUMMIT COUNTY — Calling the BP oil spill a “stark reminder” of the need for reform, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar this week moved to tighten rules for onshore oil and gas drilling. The new regulations will affect energy extraction in the oil and gas patch of northwestern Colorado and other parts of the country. There will more, and site-specific environmental review before leasing land, as well as more public involvement for developing master plans for leasing and development, Salazar said a week after announcing similar reforms for offshore drilling.
The changes will move control of the leasing process from Washington, D.C. to the field, according to Bob Abbey, director of the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that administers most of the energy development activities on public land. The new rules will allow local communities to provide input about where and how our public lands should be drilled.
Environmental groups welcomed the changes as a significant first step toward reform, but said questions remain about whether the BLM has the resources and personnel to monitor and enforce its regulations. Environmental impacts from oil and gas drilling in the West aren’t as dramatic as the images of oil spewing from a broken pipe and heading for the Florida Keys, but there has been a steady degradation of habitat that adds up over time.
“We must continue to move forward quickly and responsibly on our agenda to reform the management of our nation’s onshore and offshore energy resources and our oversight of the companies that develop them,” Salazar said in a May 17 press release. “The BLM reforms we are finalizing today establish a more orderly, open, and environmentally sound process for developing oil and gas resources on public lands. The BP oil spill is a stark reminder of how we must continue to push ahead with the reforms we have been working on and which we know are needed.”
The changes include:
- A more detailed environmental review prior to leasing oil and natural gas resources.
- The BLM will engage the public in the development of Master Leasing and Development Plans prior to leasing areas where intensive new oil and gas development is anticipated.
- A comprehensive parcel review process that takes a site-specific approach to individual lease sales.
- Provide opportunity for more public participation and better environmental documentation, which in turn is expected to reduce the number of protests filed as well as enhance the State Offices’ ability to resolve protests prior to lease sales.
“These reforms take a fresh look – from inside the Federal government and from outside – at how we can better manage Americans’ energy resources,” said Bureau of Land Management director Bob Abbey. “They will improve protections for land, water, and wildlife, and reduce potential conflicts that can lead to costly and time-consuming protests and litigation of leases,” he said.
The new policies will also tighten a widely used loophole that enabled the Bureau of Land Management to set aside special stipulations attached to leases after they’re issued by requiring a finding of “extraordinary circumstances” before allowing the agency authorize projects under a categorical exclusion.
Categorical exclusions are used to approve projects deemed not have a significant effect on the quality of the human environment, and are thus exempted from extensive environmental reviews. The U.S. Forest Service uses a very similar mechanism to approve forest health and wildfire mitigation projects. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 gave the BLM wide leeway in using those exemptions for energy projects.
Bill Eikenberry, a former associate state BLM director in Wyoming, said the announced changes are a good first step toward needed reform. But he cautioned that the BLM still has nowhere close to the money and personnel to monitor and enforce compliance with the existing rules, much less to tackle an entirely new set of regulations.
Eikenberry said the key thing is for the BLM to take charge of the leasing process to make sure it works to the benefit of the American people, who own the land.
“A lot of people tend to forget that it’s our land … the taxpayers … we own it,” he said, adding that, up to know, the industry has been in the saddle of oil and gas development, dictating how the BLM reacts to proposals. He said there hasn’t been nearly enough analysis of the effects of energy development, especially when it comes to cumulative impacts on resources like winter range for big game.
Eikenberry also said he’s concerned there’s still a disconnect between data from the field and the agency leaders in Washington, D.C.
“I don’t think he’s (Salazar) is getting the right information about what takes place out here,” he said.