A sweeping Interior Department review of federal oil and gas leasing policy could lead to profound changes in how the Bureau of Land Management selects parcels for development and how drilling operations are regulated on public lands.
The 39-page report, commissioned in July to evaluate BLM's handling of 77 contested leases in Utah, offered a broad blueprint for guiding substantive changes in how BLM handles oil and natural gas leasing. The first of those reforms could be announced later this month, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said last week as the report's findings were made public.
"The lessons we have learned by having people take an intensive look at what happened on the ground in the decision-making will help us move forward with the major reforms that we have to make with respect to the leasing of our public lands for oil and gas," Salazar said (E&ENews PM, Oct. 8).
While the details of those reforms remain unknown, Mark Stiles, the 11-member review team's leader, previewed some of the possible changes in an interview last week. They include the possible slowing of permit decisions so that regulators can better balance domestic energy development against natural resource protection, as well as new measures to reduce BLM's reliance on industry to nominate parcels for development.
"It's BLM turning the tables and figuring out what we would offer, instead of just reacting to what the industry suggests," said Stiles, forest supervisor at the San Juan National Forest in southwest Colorado.
Such reforms could have helped avoid the controversy that erupted last December when the Bush administration offered leases on 77 parcels in Utah's Nine Mile Canyon that were subsequently withdrawn in the first weeks of the Obama administration. Salazar said last week that the leases were part of a "headlong rush" by the Bush administration to expand drilling on federal land, and that oil and gas management was "not done right in the past."
Contributing to the problem is that so many parcels are nominated by industry, a fact that "greatly increases the pressure placed on BLM staff in terms of time to complete the work and perceived political leverage," the 39-page report states.
Stiles conceded that BLM lacks sufficient staff and resources to survey every site nominated for a lease sale, but he said the solution may need to involve fewer lease sales and more detailed scrutiny of proposed sites before granting project approvals.
Over the long run, Stiles said, having better information on each parcel and steering industry toward lands with fewer known environmental impacts should eliminate some of the acrimony surrounding lease sales and possibly stem the number of protests and legal challenges filed by environmental groups.
"It may end up to where we have the potential to actually enhance our ability to lease out parcels," Stiles said. "The goal is to lease parcels where it's OK to lease and get the job done the right way."
Industry observers remain skeptical.
American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard said last week that the decision to eliminate eight of the Utah leases and to defer another 52 until corrections are made signals a "troubling trend" that could curtail domestic energy production and exacerbate supply problems down the road.
Mike Olsen, a former Interior Department senior administrator who now works in the environmental strategies division of Bracewell & Giuliani, warned that slowing oil and gas permitting on public lands runs counter to public opinion favoring increased domestic energy development.
"With actions like this, to me, it just takes us a step or two or three away from the ultimate goal of energy independence," Olsen said. "On one hand, the [Obama] administration says energy independence is what we want, but on the other hand, the administration takes steps like this to keep that from happening."
Environmentalists see the report differently. They point to a review team finding that "several field office employees said they believed they were required by law to give greater deference to mineral leasing proposals than to the protection of other land uses on specific leases."
The panel's recommendations, if implemented, could help change this view, said Nada Culver, senior counsel with the Wilderness Society's BLM Action Center in Denver.
"I think what we're seeing in the broader sense is a vision of the BLM being truly in control of the national oil and gas resources that are owned by public," Culver said. "I don't think that should be viewed as radical. But I do think that needs to be written into a formal policy, because that's clearly not been the direction for the last eight years."
Among the other recommendations in the report are that BLM pay greater attention to the pollution impacts associated with oil and gas development, including air quality.
The review team recommended that BLM better coordinate with other Interior agencies -- including the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service -- to develop a comprehensive air-quality strategy for drilling operations. The strategy would deal with everything from what kind of computer models should be used to measure potential air-quality impacts to what pollutants need to be monitored during exploration and production activities.
"We want these agencies to get together and get on the same page," Stiles said. "I could envision a monitoring grid that identifies the key areas where we need to monitor oil and gas drilling."
Bruce Pendery, program director and staff attorney for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, which has frequently clashed with BLM over air-quality issues associated with drilling, said his organization was pleasantly surprised by the panel's call for a comprehensive air-quality strategy. "It's needed and appropriate," he said.
Illustrating the need for a comprehensive strategy, Pendery said, was BLM's approval three years ago to permit 3,100 new natural gas wells in the highly productive Jonah Field south of Pinedale, Wyo.
The Wyoming Outdoor Council appealed the decision to the Interior Department's Board of Land Appeals, charging that BLM failed to adopt mitigation measures to eliminate pollutants that form ground-level ozone as well as fine particulates. The group also accused BLM of using "antiquated" computer modeling technology that relied on "incorrect data" to determine potential increases in ozone levels.
The appeals board late last year allowed the Jonah Field permits to go forward. But the case resulted in BLM ditching its controversial air modeling regimen and led to new requirements that all drill rigs in the Jonah Field meet low-emissions standards.
Now it is time for these changes to be incorporated on BLM lands across the country, not just in Wyoming, said Culver, the Wilderness Society attorney.
"I think the idea of coming up with an coordinated strategy is important, because there's not a lot of consistency in that area right now," she said. "There's been a real reluctance on the BLM's part to look at air-quality management."
Noise, light pollution
Another of the review team's recommendations deals with protecting the natural soundscapes from the effects of drilling.
The issue of protecting soundscapes, as well as views, has become an emerging concern for the Interior Department, especially in high-profile areas like national parks and monuments. Since 2000, NPS's Natural Sounds Program has been studying not only the impacts of sounds on park visitors and wildlife, but also what sounds visitors want to hear when they come to a park.
NPS has set a goal of establishing sound-management plans at all 391 park units nationwide, though so far there are none in place, and the task is expected to take years (Land Letter, Oct. 8).
Similarly, artificial lighting can spoil the atmosphere of a park or pristine area, where night skies offer both unique vistas and solitude. "There is a potential for direct visitor impact from BLM-authorized oil and gas construction and development with respect to nightskies ... and soundscapes," the report states.
The report recommends that BLM work with the Park Service and other agencies to develop and implement best management practices (BMPs) for preserving natural soundscapes as well as reducing artificial light associated with night drilling operations.
"We have BMPs for how to manage roads and how to manage siltation at BLM sites, but we don't have anything for soundscapes and dark-night skies," Stiles said. "We feel that needs to change."
Scott Streater is a freelance journalist based in Colorado Springs, Colo.