Categorized | Energy, Fossil Fuels, Public Lands

Bureau of Land Management stands up for environmental review

Recently a judge in Wyoming, citing procedural flaws, blocked the BLM’s attempts to reform the way categorical exclusions (CXs) have been abused to rush oil and gas drilling on BLM administered lands.  Rep. Rush Holt (D, NJ) and other members of Congress maintain that the procedure was, in fact, not flawed and have urged the Department of Justice to appeal the ruling.  In the meantime, the BLM has responded to that ruling by initiating a public rulemaking process to remedy the procedural flaws.  While it is unclear at this early stage what exactly the proposed rule will include, BLM deserves applause for continued efforts to respond to major abuses in the use of CXs, as pointed out in a 2009 GAO report (stating that 85% of CXs were applied illegally).

The rulemaking is great news for wildlife and the many other natural resources put at risk by poorly planned oil and gas drilling throughout the west.  Historically, CXs have been used for smaller non-controversial projects where environmental review at a larger scale was already completed and was sufficient to make an informed decision regarding the impacts of the project.  CX policy put in place under the Bush Administration, however, abused the tool, allowing full field oil and gas development to proceed unfettered without consideration of impacts or development of mitigation measures for wildlife habitat, connectivity, endangered species, and other resources.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R, CO), chair of the subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources in the House of Representatives, held a hearing last week covering the CX issue.  Unsurprisingly, the oil and gas industry continues to claim that environmental review is a superfluous burden rather than a process to ensure that energy development doesn’t run counter to the nation’s longstanding policy of multiple-use of public lands.

The fact is that industry attacks on environmental review don’t hold up: under the Obama CX policy, oil and gas drilling is back to pre-recession levels and nearing a 20 year high in the U.S., all while oil and gas companies hold more than 6,500 unused permits to drill and millions of acres in leased areas they have yet to pursue development on.  Rep. Raul Grijalva (D, NM) has said that big oil companies “shouldn’t get to call the shots when it comes to public lands,” has applauded the BLM for moving forward with reforms to CX policy, and has called for additional GAO research.  Rep. Diana DeGette (D, CO) was quick to point out that the BP oil spill disaster occurred at a well approved using a CX to bypass environmental review.

BLM’s new rulemaking should find a balance by providing for complete site level review to protect public resources when heavy duty development is proposed, while allowing truly duplicative reviews to be bypassed and encouraging efficiency through processes like Master Leasing Plans.

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- who has written 13 posts on dotWild.

Addie Haughey is the Federal Lands Associate for Defenders of Wildlife. Addie works within Defenders’ Federal Lands Program in Washington, DC to advocate for wildlife on our National Forests and on other public lands.

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