Drilling policy caused confusionThe U.S. Bureau of Land Management frequently misinterpreted and violated a federal law that sought to expedite oil and gas drilling in the West, a Government Accountability Office report said Wednesday.
By: By Mead Gruver, The Associated Press , The Jamestown Sun
CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management frequently misinterpreted and violated a federal law that sought to expedite oil and gas drilling in the West, a Government Accountability Office report said Wednesday.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 laid out new circumstances in which detailed environmental review would no longer be required before oil and gas developers could drill new wells. The BLM approved such “categorical exclusions” in 28 percent of some 22,000 oil and gas permits issued between 2006 and 2008, according to the report out Wednesday.
The purpose of the law is to save regulators time by allowing them to skip environmental impact statements and environmental assessments that otherwise would be required under the act.
The GAO found the law has improved efficiency, saving a few hours of paperwork for each permit. But the report also documents several violations of the law and noncompliance with BLM’s own guidelines.
The law spells out five circumstances when categorical exclusions are permitted, including when new wells are proposed for locations where drilling has occurred within the past five years. Another exclusion exempts review when new wells are proposed for a developed field that has passed an environmental review within the past five years.
Environmentalists and others, including Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, have criticized categorical exclusions for allowing more drilling than might otherwise have been approved — a concern the report mentioned.
Violations by BLM staff have included using categorical exemptions to approve activity other than drilling oil or gas wells. Others have to do with approving drilling that occurred after the five-year timeframe had elapsed, and approving wells on sites that previously didn’t have wells, according to the report.
Eighteen BLM field offices in nine states — Alaska, California, Colorado, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming — violated portions of the law, according to the GAO.
In Wyoming, where gas drilling boomed for the better part of a decade, categorical exclusions caused two gas wells to be drilled in an otherwise pristine desert wilderness study area, said Erik Molvar of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Laramie, Wyo.
Freudenthal said one problem with categorical exclusions is they are used to grant well-by-well approval without consideration of long-term, cumulative effects after several wells are drilled.
The report suggests that Congress clarify the law and that the BLM make certain to use categorical exemptions properly — recommendations the BLM mostly agrees with, agency spokesman Matt Spangler said.