The Obama administration is moving briskly to erect new protections against environmentally destructive energy development practices in the American West even as it grapples with the cascading effects of the catastrophic BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico—and the federal oversight lapses that may have contributed to it.
Leasing of public lands to oil companies soared under the Bush-Cheney administration, even long before “drill, baby, drill” became a fatuous rallying cry on the right. The federal Bureau of Land Management approved nearly 42,000 drilling permits from fiscal year 2001 to fiscal year 2008—almost two-and-a-half times as many as in the previous eight years.
Oil and gas drilling became the priority use for these lands, regardless of other important values or legal requirements that they be managed for other public activities. The Bush administration offered up iconic landscapes treasured for their scenery, recreational opportunities, clean water and clean air, and archeological treasures. These lands became battlegrounds for litigation, including the Roan Plateau in Colorado, a rugged mesa overlooking the Colorado River prized for its elk and deer herds and a rare pure strain of Colorado cutthroat trout; the Otero Mesa in New Mexico; the Wyoming Range and Red Desert in Wyoming; and some of Utah’s most spectacular red rock canyon country.
Energy development has progressed on such a broad and intensive scale in the region around Pinedale, Wyoming, that it has transformed what was a quiet rural area into an industrial zone with air pollution problems more commonly found in Los Angeles.
As Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said earlier this year, the BLM became a “candy store” for the oil and gas industry. “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 added. “We need a fresh look—from inside the federal government and from outside—at how we can better manage Americans’ energy resources.”
Salazar provided that fresh look last week. It’s a welcome one, particularly for westerners but also for all Americans who value the forests, rangelands, and deserts they own in common—a vast system unmatched in the world.
Few people in the West oppose all energy development on federal lands. But most want it done right, done where appropriate, and done in ways that protect special places. Measures announced last week by the Department of Interior to reform its leasing policies should, if implemented wisely, meet those common goals.
Here’s the key instruction from the memorandum sent out to field officers of the BLM: “The BLM recognizes that, in some cases, leasing of oil and gas resources may not be consistent with protection of other important resources and values…Under applicable laws and policies, there is no presumed preference for oil and gas development over other uses.”
The details include:
- More thorough environmental reviews of proposed leases and an end to the wholesale use of “categorical exclusions” that allowed the federal government to issue thousands of drilling permits without adequately reviewing the potential environmental effects of development.
- A requirement to develop master leasing plans in areas that have not yet been leased but where the industry is interested in development and there may be conflicts between competing uses.
- Far more extensive public involvement and consultations with other federal agencies and local governments prior to leasing decisions.
- A decision that even when existing land management plans categorize areas as open to possible leasing, that designation does not mean that they shall be leased.
- More flexibility for land managers to limit damage when leasing is approved, through a variety of techniques including phased development and limits on surface disturbance that can better protect sensitive areas.
- Land managers will be required to actually visit sites proposed for leasing to determine if “non-mineral resources values” outweigh energy development.
These reforms are drawing fire from the oil and gas industry despite how sensible they are. Kathleen Sgamma, government affairs director for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, said that the BLM directives will mean more “uncertainty for producers and investors in the West by creating additional layers of red tape, hampering the development of American onshore energy.”
What the oil and gas industry always seems to forget in its press releases is that there are more than 32 million federal acres under lease for oil and gas drilling that have not yet been developed.
Sixty former state and federal land managers said in a recent letter to Sec. Salazar that these reforms “will help to restore balance and common-sense values to management of our public lands, while still allowing development of our energy resources.”
One of the signers, Mike Dombeck, who formerly directed both the BLM and U.S. Forest Service, said the lesson of the BP gulf oil disaster is clear. “We’ve seen in recent weeks in the Gulf what can happen when balance, common sense and enforcement are sacrificed.”
The reform of onshore oil and gas development needs to be followed by a rigorous review and overhaul of the way another Interior agency, the Minerals Management Service, oversees offshore energy drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. Those two vital steps will begin to restore the public’s faith in how Interior protects the environment while allowing safe development of our domestic energy sources.
Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.