Oil and Gas Permitting Keeps BLM Staff Too Busy For Environment

WASHINGTON, DC, July 22, 2005 (ENS) - The Bureau of Land Management's ability to meet its environmental mitigation responsibilities for oil and gas development has been lessened by a dramatic increase in oil and gas operations on federal lands over the past six years, according to a report issued Thursday by Congressional investigators.

Nationwide, the total number of drilling permits approved by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has more than tripled over the six year period - from 1,803 in fiscal year 1999 to 6,399 in fiscal year 2004.

BLM officials in five out of eight field offices visited by investigators from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) explained that as a result of the increases in drilling permit workloads, staff had to devote increased time to processing drilling permits, leaving less time for mitigation activities, such as environmental inspections and idle-well reviews.

The investigation was conducted at the request of Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat who serves as the ranking minority member on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.


Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman is concerned about environmental destruction in the Western states as a result of oil and gas development. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Lieberman said Thursday, that the BLM is "so focused on issuing permits for oil and gas drilling that it’s neglecting its responsibility to protect the land, air, water, fish, and wildlife damaged by the drilling."

In its report the GAO said, "Rising U.S. energy consumption and concerns about dependency on foreign energy sources have prompted the administration to aggressively pursue domestic oil and gas production, including production on public lands, which in turn has generated concern that the impacts of this activity may compromise the use of public land for other purposes."

“This administration appears to have lost its sense of balance between granting drilling permits to the oil and gas industry and protecting the natural wonder of the environment,” Lieberman said. “Striking the right balance is BLM’s statutory responsibility. Irresponsible stewardship of public lands while the oil and gas industry profits is not an acceptable balance.”

BLM made policy revisions over the last six years that affected to varying degrees its ability to assess and mitigate the environmental impacts of oil and gas development. Some revisions were aimed at facilitating and managing increased development, while others were meant to enhance environmental mitigation. GAO investigators say the combined effects of these policy changes were "mixed."

For example, four of the eight field offices reported that the most significant impact of the policies to expedite and manage oil and gas development was the increased emphasis placed on processing permits, which resulted in shifting staff responsibilities away from mitigation activities.

On the other hand, policies to enhance mitigation generally had a positive impact, although increases in the permitting workload have limited their effect.

In six field offices, policies for revitalizing BLM’s inspection and enforcement program resulted in more inspection staff being hired, although most offices remain understaffed, the GAO reports.

Workload pressure, already high due to increased permitting activity, has been further increased by a higher number of appeals and litigation of BLM decisions and actions, according to BLM staff.

Powder River

Coalbed methane development in the Powder River Basin of northeast Wyoming is transforming a mixed prairie landscape of rolling hills into an energy development industrial zone. (Photo courtesy Powder River Basin Resource Council)
The GAO investigators found that the two BLM field offices that issued the largest percentage increase of drilling permits met annual environmental inspection goals only once in the past six years.

One of these offices, in Buffalo, Wyoming, last met its goal in 2000. The other, in Vernal, Utah, last met its goal in 1999. Combined, the eight offices visited by GAO investigators met their annual environmental inspections goals only about half of the time during the past six years.

Half of the field offices surveyed had a backlog of past due idle-well reviews. Seven of the eight field offices had a backlog of reclamation inspections. Half of the field offices have failed to develop any resource monitoring plans.

The report noted that heavy workload associated with processing drilling permits has slowed the development of resource monitoring plans in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.

In reviewing BLM’s efforts to manage increasing workloads, the GAO found that some data needed to quantify specific workload activities are either not tracked or not consistently tracked, and that BLM’s current workforce planning process does not effectively identify and communicate BLM’s staff needs to decision makers.

As a result, the process does not provide consistent and readily available information that BLM can use to support budget justifications and make informed resource allocation decisions.

BLM is also presented with the challenge of meeting its oil and gas program responsibilities in a period when staffing needs are growing faster than available resources.

While BLM has the authority to assess and collect fees for processing oil and gas permits, it has not exercised this authority, the GAO reports.

The BLM has recently taken steps to develop a fee structure for oil and gas permits.

The GAO recommends, among other things, that BLM should ensure that its staffing needs are accurately reflected in its workforce plans and finalize and implement a fee structure to recover the cost of processing oil and gas permits.

Interior agreed with all of GAO’s recommendations and said the report generally does much to capture the many demands involved in managing BLM’s oil and gas program.


Oil well on public land near Carlsbad, New Mexico (Photo courtesy BLM)
On June 30, after the GAO report was written, the BLM announced a change to its procedures for the filing of protests on lands included in oil and natural gas lease sales that should make it easier for staff to deal with these protests.

Protests now will have to be received at least 15 days prior to the date of the sale.

“These new procedures protect the rights of the public to protest the sale and provide input,” said Tom Lonnie, the BLM’s Assistant Director for Minerals, Realty and Resource Protection. “It also gives land managers an opportunity to resolve disputed issues or make adjustments to a lease sale.”

Several states, particularly in the Rocky Mountain region, routinely receive one or more protests on posted sale offerings.

Until now, the BLM often did not receive protests until the day before or the morning of a sale.

In other cases, the BLM received the protest in a timely manner but did not receive the statement of reasons until just before or even after the sale, says Lonnie, leaving BLM staff no opportunity for review of the reasons for the protest in advance of the sale and no time to make s decision on whether withdrawing a protested parcel from the sale is appropriate.

Under the new rules, the BLM state office handling the sale must receive all protests at least 15 calendar days prior to the date of the sale.

Protests may be submitted by mail in hard-copy form or byfax, but not by email.

Protests must include the name and address of the protesting party. Protests must state the relationship between the party submitting the protest and the protesting party.

For instance, said Lonnie, a member of an environmental group can submit a protest, but cannot submit one on behalf of the group unless authorized to do so.