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By Alan Kovski
Oil and gas companies could get more leasing opportunities and faster permitting for work on federal onshore lands under an order announced July 6 by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Zinke told reporters he was issuing a secretarial order to simplify and streamline the leasing and permitting process and stabilize it in terms of honoring lease commitments, all without skirting the obligations of the National Environmental Policy Act.
“I’m a firm believer in the NEPA process,” Zinke said.
The Bureau of Land Management last year took an average of 257 days to issue a drilling permit. Zinke said he was aiming to meet the statutory mandate for issuing drilling permits in 30 days, although he admitted the BLM might not get there.
“This is not going to be done overnight,” Zinke said. And if permitting times cannot be reduced to 30 days, Interior will need to ask Congress to look at it, he said.
The secretary mentioned federal lands in the Permian Basin region of New Mexico and the Uinta Basin region of Utah as examples of areas that might benefit from expedited permitting. He also could have mentioned federal lands in Wyoming, northern Colorado and the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico where oil and gas companies have chafed at permitting delays.
The secretarial order will require BLM to hold lease sales quarterly in states that have the federal resources to support such leasing. That, like the 30-day requirement for drilling permits, is a mandate of the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920.
He also said he wanted to reduce permitting times for roads, bridges and pipelines on federal lands.
The Independent Petroleum Association of America welcomed the secretarial order and was quick to suggest ways to help things along.
Interior should “use the dedicated funds made available by the bipartisan pilot project to streamline permitting to hire more staff equipped to process drilling permits in an efficient, timely fashion,” said Dan Naatz, IPAA senior vice president of government relations and political affairs, in a statement issued after Zinke spoke.
Naatz mentioned such ideas as making better use of the categorical exclusions that are sometimes available to agencies to reduce the time devoted to NEPA analyses.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a frequent critic of the Trump administration, did not wait for Zinke’s secretarial order.
Grijalva released a letter to Zinke earlier in the day asking how the administration’s rhetoric about “energy dominance” can be turned into realistic policy “given the requirements of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) to manage public lands ‘on the basis of multiple use and sustained yield.’”
FLPMA requirements for “multiple use” of public lands obligate the BLM to achieve a balancing act between energy production, recreation, wildlife habitat protection, mining, timber harvests, and livestock grazing.
The Wilderness Society also expressed misgivings. A statement from Nada Culver, senior director of agency policy and planning for group, said, “The oil and gas industry has been sitting on thousands of approved permits on their millions of acres of leased land for years now. The real problem here is this administration’s obsession with selling out more of our public lands to the oil and gas industry.”
The order is directed primarily at the work of the BLM, but it also may affect agencies that work with the BLM, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which consults with the BLM on Endangered Species Act concerns.
Federal agencies often have been failing to coordinate their work efficiently, Zinke said, echoing one of the common complaints about federal work involving multiple agencies. Cooperating agencies can do work simultaneously rather than sequentially to streamline work, he said.
Much of that can extend outside the domain of the Interior secretary, however, as in the case of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permitting under the Clean Water Act or Environmental Protection Agency permitting under the Clean Air Act.
Zinke repeated some of his recent objections to federal regulatory activity. In reviewing regulatory actions, he said, “it became evident that some of them are punitive, and they don’t allow industry to be innovative.”
In terms of innovation, he was echoing a common complaint about prescriptive regulations that specify technologies and techniques rather than performance-based regulations that set standards and allow companies to develop innovative ways of achieving those standards.
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