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Interior Secretary Signs Order to Streamline Permitting, Address Backlog

Pledging to make the Interior Department "a better neighbor in the new Trump administration," Secretary Ryan Zinke issued a secretarial order (SO) on Thursday that calls for streamlining the permitting process for drilling on federal lands.

The order -- officially, SO No. 3354 -- calls for supporting and improving the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Program and the Federal Solid Mineral Leasing Program. Specifically, it directs Interior's Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management and the director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to report on various issues to the Counselor to the Secretary for Energy Policy (CSEP) within 45 days.

According to the SO, the report is to outline progress made on supporting and improving quarterly lease sales held by the BLM -- an issue the oil and gas industry and its supporters have grumbled about for years, and which triggered a lawsuit last August. The aforementioned officials are also required to identify options for improving the leasing programs, and to think ways to tackle the large backlog of Applications to Permit to Drill (APD), which the BLM said totaled more than 2,800 at the end of January.

The SO also calls for other assistant secretaries and the heads of bureaus and offices within the Interior Department to identify any policies that could impede the BLM from holding quarterly lease sales, and to submit a similar progress report to the CSEP within 45 days.

"Oil and gas production on federal lands is an important source of revenue and job growth in rural America but it is hard to envision increased investment on federal lands when a federal permit can take the better part of a year or more in some cases," Zinke said Thursday. "This is why I'm directing the BLM to conduct quarterly lease sales and address these permitting issues.

"We are also looking at opportunities to bring support to our front line offices who are facing the brunt of this workload. This is just good government and will further support the President's goal of American energy dominance."

Interior said that despite a statute requiring the BLM to process APDs within 30 days, the average time to process an APD in fiscal year 2016 was 257 days. The top five BLM field offices responsible for nearly three-quarters of the backlog of 2,802 APDs were Casper, WY (which had 526 APDs); Vernal, UT (506); Dickinson, ND (488); Carlsbad/Hobbs, NM (388); and Farmington, NM (152).

"As is outlined in this order, we will look at ways to improve the process and make sure regulations serve their intended purpose rather than create a mountain of useless paperwork," Zinke said. "By streamlining approvals of responsible energy development on federal land, and actually holding lease sales, we will generate revenue for local communities and the Treasury to fund the things we all value like National Parks, infrastructure and education."

Interior said that last year it canceled or postponed 11 lease sales. "By contrast, the Trump Administration has already held more lease sales in the first six months than in the previous year, offered more acreage in those sales, and raised more revenue than in the same time period last year," the department said.

In a statement, the American Petroleum Institute (API) said it supported the move.

"We applaud the administration's steps to help strengthen the United States' energy position," said Erik Milito, API's upstream and industry operations group director. "A key component of a successful policy is repairing the federal permitting process so that companies have the confidence to invest and see their projects move forward...

"Today's action is an important recognition of the benefits of responsible development on federal lands, which make up nearly a third of U.S. territory. We look forward to working with the administration on smart policies that unlock investment and improve regulatory uncertainty for businesses, and ensure environmental stewardship."

Last August, the Western Energy Alliance filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, alleging the BLM has failed to meet federal obligations to hold quarterly lease sales and conduct them in a transparent manner.

During testimony last month before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Zinke warned lawmakers that a gap in trust had erupted between the federal government and the oil and gas industry. He cited the APD backlog as one of the impediments to closing the gap.

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