Wildlife Management Institute

WMI Outdoor News Bulletin Interior Secretary Announces Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reforms
Interior Secretary Announces Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reforms PDF Print E-mail

photo of oil well by Joshua DeLaughterOn January 6, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced major reforms to the way the government manages oil and gas leasing on federal public lands, to improve protection for land, water, and wildlife, reports the Wildlife Management Institute. In addition, the Interior Department will create a new Energy Reform Team that will identify and implement future changes. Many of the reforms that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will undertake follow the recommendations of an interdisciplinary review team that studied a controversial 2008 oil and gas lease sale in Utah.

According to the Secretary, the reforms were needed to improve certainty and order to the oil and gas leasing process and to reduce potential conflicts from reaching litigation. However, while the reforms have received praise from some groups, others have raised questions about how the reforms will be implemented.

“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,” said Secretary Salazar. “We need a fresh look—from inside the federal government and from outside—at how we can better manage Americans’ energy resources. The new guidance BLM is issuing for field managers will help bring clarity, consistency, and public engagement to the onshore oil and gas leasing process while balancing the many resource values that the Bureau of Land Management is entrusted with protecting on behalf of the American people. In addition, with the help of our new Energy Reform Team, we will improve the Department’s internal operations to better manage publicly owned energy resources and the revenues they produce.”

The BLM’s new draft policy will require a more detailed environmental review prior to leasing of oil and gas resources. Part of the proposal will call for Master Leasing and Development Plans in unleased or undeveloped areas to evaluate fully the other important natural resource values of an area prior to development. In addition, the agency will require more comprehensive, interdisciplinary, site-specific reviews to individual lease sales. Throughout each process, the BLM will ensure greater public participation of interested groups and individuals.

“The new approach can help restore certainty and predictability to a system currently burdened by constant legal challenges and protests,” said BLM Director, Bob Abbey. “It will also support the BLM’s multiple-use mission, which requires management of the public lands to provide opportunities for activities such as recreation, conservation, and energy development—both conventional and renewable.”

In addition, the BLM issued interim new draft guidance to its field offices regarding the use of categorical exclusion (CX), which is a legal option under the National Environmental Policy Act that allows project approval without extensive environmental review if the agency determines that projects will not have significant impacts. Under Section 390 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, five new CXs were established in order to streamline the environmental review process for permitting of certain oil and gas exploration and development activities. Under the new policy, the BLM will not use these Section 390 CXs in cases involving “extraordinary circumstances,” such as impacts to protected species, historic or cultural resources, or human health and safety. Finally, Salazar issued a Secretarial Order that establishes an Energy Reform Team within the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals Management. That will facilitate coordination of onshore and offshore conventional and renewable energy development. It also will oversee the identifying and implementing best practices and reforms to improve the Department’s energy operations. A primary goal will be to improve efficiency, effectiveness and accountability of the Department’s management of energy resources on federal lands and on the Outer Continental Shelf.

Many groups applaud the reforms as long overdue. “America’s sportsmen are deeply invested in ensuring the responsible management of our federal public lands and have welcomed past opportunities to work with Secretary Salazar and the Department of the Interior to develop administrative policy promoting the outcome presented today,” said Rollin Sparrowe, working group co-chair and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership board member. “The Secretary’s announcement comes not a moment too soon for our nation’s shared natural resources and cherished outdoor heritage.”

However, Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal sent a strongly worded letter to Secretary Salazar criticizing the Department for reforms that he says would lead to burdensome new requirements without solving underlying problems: “My hope would be for the Department to focus its energy and attention on compliance, monitoring, inspections and implementation—rather than on a prematurely constraining leasing program that will functionally tie a millstone around the neck of the Department and detract from the more pressing issues of the day.” Freudenthal offered assistance in revising the policy to make it more acceptable. He suggested giving deference to Resource Management Plan (RMP) allocations, but subsequently applying state game and fish, air, water and land map overlays to ensure that those resources can be adequately protected by RMP stipulations. Following consultation with state agencies, the Governor recommended applying conditions of approval sufficient to protect the resources before moving forward with leasing. If new stipulations are deemed necessary, the Governor recommended that the BLM initiate an RMP amendment.

The new oil and gas leasing guidance and CX guidance will be implemented once BLM has completed final internal reviews. (jas)