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GAO: Rise in Permitting Requests Leaves BLM With Little Time for Environmental Inspections

A dramatic increase in oil and natural gas development on federal lands over the past six years has stretched the staff of Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to a point that it has been unable to meet its environmental protection responsibilities, according to a new report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) last Thursday.

To remedy the situation, the GAO recommended that Interior Secretary Gale Norton take steps to ensure that BLM's staffing needs are brought to the attention of key decision-makers. In addition, it suggested that the secretary direct BLM to finalize and implement a fee structure to recover the costs of processing oil and gas drilling permits from producers. The BLM has the authority to assess and collect fees for processing oil and gas permits, but it has not exercised it in the past.

Nationwide, the total number of oil and gas drilling permits approved by BLM has more than tripled, from 1,803 to 6,399 for fiscal years 1999 through 2004, said the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, Much of the increased oil and gas activity has been concentrated in five intermountain states -- Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

In fiscal year 2004 alone, the offices under the jurisdiction of these five BLM state offices collectively approved 6,204 drilling permits, or more than 95% of the nationwide total, the GAO reported to Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), who requested the review. Lieberman is the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The increase in permitting requests has left little time for BLM's other responsibility -- mitigating the environmental impacts of oil and gas production, according to the 70-page report. "For example, the Buffalo, WY, and Vernal, UT, field offices -- the two field offices with the largest increase in permitting activity -- were each able to meet their annual environmental inspection goals only once in the past six years."

Over the past six years, the BLM has made several policy changes that have affected to varying degrees the agency's ability to assess and mitigate the environmental impacts of oil and gas activities on public lands, GAO said. The dual policies sought to streamline the permitting process, review restrictions on oil and gas development, and enhance BLM's oil and gas inspection capabilities.

"However, the combined effects of both types of policy changes on BLM's ability to assess and mitigate environmental impacts have been mixed. For example, staff from four of the eight field offices told us that policies that streamlined the permitting process also increased the emphasis on processing permits, which in turn resulted in shifting staff away from their environmental mitigation responsibilities," the report said.

The BLM's workload "has been further exacerbated by increases in public challenges to BLM's decisions and actions, according to BLM staff. Heavy workloads have led to high stress levels and low morale among some staff."

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