A New Sheriff Cleans Up Federal Lands

Secretary Salazar’s New Approach to Oil and Gas Drilling

When president-elect Barack Obama nominated Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar to head the Department of Interior at the end of 2008, some voices in the conservation community wondered whether the moderate Democrat with ties to ranching and other traditional western industries was the best choice to chart a new direction in managing one-fifth of the nation’s land.

But Salazar quickly moved to dispel many of those worries with a series of directives that forcefully demonstrated a major shift in the department’s approach, particularly on policies related to energy development on federal lands.

He suspended 77 controversial oil and gas leases in Utah, some of them near national parks and national monuments. He directed his agencies to make the development of renewable energy a priority, understanding that renewable energy projects create more jobs than fossil fuels development. He withdrew the previous administration’s industry-friendly research and development leases for oil shale development in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. He launched a department-wide effort to ensure that federal land management decisions respond effectively to climate change. And, saying, “There’s a new sheriff in town,” he began to clean up the scandal-plagued Minerals Management Service—an Interior agency that oversees royalty collections from oil and gas companies operating on federal land and offshore.

A year later, Salazar is still herding an industry that had grown accustomed to getting nearly everything it wanted from Washington. Early last month Salazar announced that his department’s Bureau of Land Management would conduct more thorough environmental reviews of potential oil and gas leases—including site-specific inspections—and that a new departmental team would oversee energy reforms so Interior would no longer be a “candy store” for the fossil fuels industry. That followed a September 2009 probe by the Government Accountability Office that found that an existing policy of bypassing environmental reviews of oil and gas decisions did not comply with either federal law or the BLM’s own guidelines.

“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 said. “We need a fresh look—from inside the federal government and from outside—at how we can better manage Americans’ energy resources.”

This represents a refreshing return to a more balanced approach for many westerners, who watched with increasing dismay as his predecessors at Interior presided over a big expansion of drilling and pushed oil and gas development in some of the West’s most iconic places despite public concerns for clean air and water and hunting, fishing ,and recreation opportunities.

Data collected by The Wilderness Society from BLM public records tells part of the tale: From fiscal year 2001 to fiscal year 2009, more than 41,700 drilling permits were approved on federal lands—almost two and a half times as many as during the previous eight years. The Government Accountability Office found in 2005 that the “dramatic increase” in oil and gas development on federal lands had undercut the BLM’s ability to meet its environmental obligations.

The pace of development was such that rural Sublette County, Wyoming—which doesn’t even have a traffic light—recorded ozone levels in February 2008 that were nearly 50 percent higher than federal health standards. But it wasn’t just the numbers—it was also the cherished places targeted for drilling: Colorado’s Roan Plateau, New Mexico’s Otero Mesa, Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, the Wyoming Range, and the list goes on.

Now that Salazar and the Obama administration are moving to a more measured and responsible oil and gas program on federal lands, the industry is crying foul. Never mind that, according to the Environmental Law Institute, the fossil fuels sector received $70.2 billion in federal subsidies between 2002 and 2008, compared to $12.2 billion for renewable energy and $16.8 billion for corn ethanol.

American Petroleum Institute president Jack Gerard accused the administration last November of taking “a series of actions…to delay or thwart oil and natural gas exploration.” The Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States that same month accused Interior of “irregularities” in cutting lease sales and failing to issue $100 million in leases already sold.

But federal records show that more than 45,000,000 federal acres were under lease as recently as last fall, and that more than 32 million of those acres had yet to be into production.

IPAMS director of government affairs Kathleen Sgamma went after Salazar again in January after he announced his department would be more thorough in conducting environmental reviews of proposed oil and gas leases.

Interior, Sgamma charged, is “moving to a bureaucratic command-and-control system in which government bureaucrats—rather than scientists with expertise in natural and oil development—dictate where energy development should occur.”

It is laughable for Sgamma to complain about command and control of energy development decisions. During the free-for-all years, the command and control began at the top and down through Interior Secretary Gale Norton and her deputy Steven Griles. Norton is under investigation by the Justice Department for possible illegality related to Interior’s awarding of oil shale leases to a Royal Dutch Shell subsidiary and her later hiring by the firm. Griles, a former mining industry lobbyist before he became Interior deputy secretary, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

The message from the top to expedite drilling was taken seriously by those “government bureaucrats” as an internal 2002 memo written by a BLM official in Utah made clear. Staff should understand, the official said, “that when an oil and gas lease parcel or when an application for permission to drill comes in the door, that this work is their number-one priority.”

Salazar, to his credit, has not backed away under industry criticisms, calling them “poison and deceptive.”

Oil and gas interests, he said, “do not own the nation’s public lands; taxpayers do.”

Tom Kenworthy is a Colorado-based senior fellow with the Center for American Progress.