DENVER – The Bureau of Land Management plans to write new guidelines for using a provision that allows for speedier environmental reviews of oil and gas development on public land following a judge's order to stop using its existing guidance.
This time, the public will have a chance to comment as the agency writes new rules for using so-called "categorical exclusions" of certain land from extra environmental reviews, BLM Deputy Director Mike Pool said Friday at a House subcommittee hearing led by Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo.
Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance said her trade group was pleased the BLM was addressing the matter through rulemaking rather than appealing the judge's order.
The BLM has used categorical exclusions to approve almost 6,900 activities related to oil and gas projects from fiscal 2006 through fiscal 2008, and nearly 6,100 of those were for drilling permits, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Conservation-minded groups and the energy industry both have pushed for a consistent interpretation of how categorical exclusions should be used.
"What we're striving for is a reasonable balance that meets the energy demands of the nation but also protects our western heritage and the quality hunting and angling opportunities that public land provides," said Gaspar Perricone, co-founder of the Bull Moose Sportsmen's Alliance.
The exclusions are allowed under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which aimed to streamline approvals needed to drill on federal land. In general, areas that have already undergone an environmental review or areas where relatively small oil and gas projects are planned can be categorically excluded from another review, which sometimes can take years.
Industry and conservation groups have been in and out of court over how and when the BLM should use categorical exclusions.
Last year, as part of a settlement with environmental groups, the BLM issued a memo requiring its field offices to screen whether a further environmental review was needed on any land being considered for exclusion.
That prompted a lawsuit by the Western Energy Alliance, and last month, a federal judge ordered the agency to stop using the 2010 guidance because the public hadn't had a chance to comment on it.
Pool indicated the BLM was leaning toward revising the policy rather than simply re-releasing it as a rule after allowing for public comment.
In fact, the BLM was in the middle of updating the 2010 memo when the judge ruled in the Western Energy Alliance case, Mark Gaffigan of the Government Accountability Office told Lamborn's subcommittee Friday.
While categorical exclusions were meant to cut red tape, energy companies have still encountered delays in getting approval for projects because the BLM wants to make sure its projects can stand up to court challenges, said Sgamma, of the Western Energy Alliance.
"They're trying to bulletproof their decisions so they don't get sued," she told Lamborn.
She contends limiting the use of categorical exclusions will delay oil and gas development and cost jobs. Devon Energy Corp. reassigned one of its drilling rigs in the Washakie Basin in Wyoming, partly because of 2010 restrictions on the exclusions and partly because of falling natural gas prices, said Randy Bolles, a manager of regulatory affairs for the company. Each running rig means 125 jobs, Sgamma said.
Pool said that before President Barack Obama's administration implemented oil and gas leasing reforms, including the 2010 policy, as many as half of all federal oil and gas leases the BLM offered were protested. That has fallen to 12 to 14 percent, he said.
Hearing documents: http://bit.ly/oxPIQy
Follow Catherine Tsai at http://www.twitter.com/ctsai_denver
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