Energy policy — oil and gas: Interior Secretary Salazar changes rules to include a seat at the table for wildlife, watersheds, wilderness and communities

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From New West (David Frey):

Taking aim at the Bush administration’s approach to oil and gas leasing, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar unveiled a slate of reforms on Wednesday intended to better protect land, water and wildlife and reduce the number of protests filed by environmental groups and others at odds with leasing decisions.

“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 on Wednesday.

More coverage from the Las Vegas Sun (Stephanie Tavares):

Under new federal guidelines, the Bureau of Land Management will establish an Energy Reform Team to create and implement several reforms meant to improve protection of land water and wildlife and reducing conflicts between energy developers and environmentalists…

Under the new guidelines:

* Individual parcels nominated for leasing will undergo increased public participation, agency coordination, interdisciplinary review of available information, confirmation of Resource Management Plan conformance and site visits to parcels when necessary.

* Master Leasing and Development Plans for areas where intensive new oil and gas extraction is anticipated will have greater public involvement.

* The agency will emphasize leasing in already developed areas and will plan carefully for leasing and development in new areas. It will continue to accept industry recommendations regarding where to offer leases but will analyze impacts of leasing new areas in greater detail, including air quality, watersheds, wilderness, wildlife and nearby land use.

More coverage from the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

Energy companies will benefit from better scrutiny of public lands and greater public involvement because they’ll have to deal with fewer protests, Salazar said Wednesday. Salazar blamed the Bush administration for allowing federal lands to be “the candy store of the oil and gas industry.”

Industry officials, however, said there is much to protest in the new approach. “While the policy shift is not really surprising, the tone of the announcement was certainly a surprise,” said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association. “Equating some of the nation’s best geologists and smartest engineers with kids in a candy store marginalizes their vital contribution to identifying new domestic supplies of energy.”

In 1998, only 1 percent of oil and gas leases were protested, but that number rose to 40 percent in 2008, Salazar said in a telephone press conference announcing that the way federal lands are leased will be revamped. In the future, companies and individuals still will nominate federal lands for leasing, but the Bureau of Land Management will decide whether to offer them for auction after a “detailed interdisciplinary review,” Salazar said. An “energy reform team” will identify and carry out additional revisions, Salazar said.

Salazar’s approach drew support from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and several environmental organizations. “We welcome the increased clarity and public engagement promised by the secretary in the federal minerals-leasing process,” said Steve Belinda, the partnership’s energy-policy manager…

State Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, dismissed the changes as similar to the much-criticized rules governing drilling in Colorado, blamed by Republicans for contributing to drilling slowdowns. “Why on earth would Secretary Salazar want to take Colorado’s job-killing energy rules national?” Penry said.

The drilling slowdown in Colorado is tied to the national economy and not new regulations, western Colorado land owner Peggy Utesch said. “The industry wants the public to believe that children will be standing out cold on street corners because of a restoration of balance to what has been an out-of-control leasing program,” Utesch said.

Here’s a release from the Bureau of Land Management:

Citing a need to improve certainty and order in oil and gas leasing on U.S. public lands, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today announced several reforms that the Bureau of Land Management will undertake to improve protections for land, water, and wildlife and reduce potential conflicts that can lead to costly and time-consuming protests and litigation of leases. Interior will also establish a new Energy Reform Team to identify and implement important energy management reforms.

“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.”

Many of the reforms that the Bureau of Land Management will undertake follow the recommendations of an interdisciplinary review team that studied a controversial 2008 oil and gas lease sale in Utah.

Under the reformed oil and gas leasing policy, BLM will provide:

— Comprehensive interdisciplinary reviews that take into account site-specific considerations for individual lease sales. Resource Management Plans will continue to provide programmatic-level guidance, but individual parcels nominated for leasing will undergo increased internal and external coordination, public participation, interdisciplinary review of available information, confirmation of Resource Management Plan conformance as well as site visits to parcels when necessary;

— Greater public involvement in developing Master Leasing and Development Plans for areas where intensive new oil and gas extraction is anticipated so that other important natural resource values can be fully considered prior to making an irreversible commitment to develop an area;

— Leadership in identifying areas where new oil and gas leasing will occur. The BLM will continue to accept industry expressions of interest regarding where to offer leases, but will emphasize leasing in already-developed areas and will plan carefully for leasing and development in new areas.

BLM Director Bob Abbey said the increased opportunity for public participation and a more thorough environmental review process and documentation can help reduce the number of protests filed as well as enhance BLM’s ability to resolve protests prior to lease sales. A comparison of the new guidance with current policy can be found here.

“The new approach can help restore certainty and predictability to a system currently burdened by constant legal challenges and protests,” said 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.”

BLM will also issue guidance regarding the use of categorical exclusions, or CXs, established by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and that allow the bureau to approve some oil and gas development activities based on existing environmental or planning analysis. Under the new policy, in accordance with White House Council on Environmental Quality guidelines, BLM will not use these CX’s in cases involving “extraordinary circumstances” such as impacts to protected species, historic or cultural resources, or human health and safety.

Salazar also issued a Secretarial Order establishing an Energy Reform Team within the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management that will identify and oversee implementation of energy reforms.

“The creation of the new Team focuses on our important stewardship responsibility in the management of the nation’s energy resources,” said Wilma Lewis, Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management. “Through its work, the team will promote efficiency and effectiveness in the development of renewable and conventional energy resources, so that we can be properly accountable to the American public.”

Under the Assistant Secretary’s direction, the Energy Reform Team will provide greater coordination and improved accountability to ensure the orderly, efficient, responsible and timely development of public resources critical for our national energy security. Through its own efforts, as well as by considering good ideas from stakeholders, industry, and the public, the Team will help ensure that Interior is a responsible steward of the public resources it manages and obtains fair value for energy resources owned by the public.

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

More coverage from the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Salazar outlined reforms on Wednesday that included:

• New guidance to BLM field staff to take a more active role in determining what areas are appropriate for oil and gas development. Staff will also conduct more analysis and on-the-ground reviews of nominated parcels with regard to environmental and cultural effects of oil and gas exploration and development. They will also involve the public more fully in the process.

• New guidance about categorical exclusions that more fully take into account potential impacts to protected spaces, human health and safety and natural resources.

• A secretarial order to create an energy reform team under Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Lands and Minerals Management Wilma Lewis to help identify and implement energy reform, with the assistance of “stakeholders.” The team will “continue to find better ways of managing taxpayer resources,” Salazar said.

Salazar said these reforms are “a big step in the right direction.” He said the reforms would result in better protection of America’s public lands, better decisions on behalf of American taxpayers and less litigation in the future. “Court battles over oil and gas leases are now costing millions of dollars through litigation and they are taking important resources,” Salazar said. “Almost nobody is happy with the status quo.”

More coverage from the Colorado Independent (David O. Williams):

“The difference is that in the prior administration the oil and gas industry essentially were the kings of the world,” Salazar told reporters. “Whatever they wanted to happen essentially happened. The department was essentially a handmaiden of the industry.” Salazar described new guidelines for U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) field offices when it comes to identifying and leasing appropriate parcels; new environmental review policies that take a closer look at other natural attributes of a proposed lease parcel; and a Department of the Interior Energy Reform Team to oversee the changes.

More oil and gas coverage here and here.

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