In an effort to expedite its regulatory duties, including processing applications to drill (APD) oil and natural gas wells on federal lands, the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reminded its field offices that they have tools available to streamline the process while remaining in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

On Wednesday, BLM issued an information bulletin (IB) outlining the process by which its field offices, when considering proposals for oil and gas development, can determine "whether it can rely on existing NEPA analyses for assessing the impacts of a proposed action," or whether a categorical exclusion (CX) is applicable. Under a CX, the BLM is not required to perform either an environmental assessment (EA) or an environmental impact statement (EIS).

"The purpose of this IB is to remind BLM offices of the existing procedures for streamlining NEPA review under applicable statutes, regulations, and guidance and to encourage BLM offices to use these tools consistently and effectively," the bureau said. Those tools include determinations of NEPA adequacy (DNAs), statutory and administrative CXs, and oil and gas field-wide programmatic NEPA analyses. BLM said the third tool is based upon "reasonable foreseeable development scenarios that can be used to expedite compliance with NEPA at the APD stage..."

"If existing NEPA analyses are sufficient to support the proposed decision, then BLM should document its reliance on these existing analyses in a DNA, or by adopting or incorporating these analyses into a new NEPA document, or by tiering new analysis so that the existing analysis is effectively used as support for the new proposal."

BLM said that if it cannot make a DNA, it should consider whether there is an applicable CX. The bureau added that the Energy Policy Act of 2005 contains five CXs specifically tailored to oil and gas development. They are:

  • Individual surface disturbances of less than five acres, so long as the total surface disturbance on the lease is not greater than 150 acres and site specific analysis in a document prepared pursuant to NEPA has been previously completed;
  • Drilling an oil or gas well at a location or well pad site at which drilling has occurred previously within five years prior to the date of spudding the well;
  • Drilling an oil or gas well within a developed field for which an approved land use plan or any environmental document prepared pursuant to NEPA analyzed such drilling as a reasonably foreseeable activity, so long as such plan or document was approved within five years prior to the date of spudding the well;
  • Placement of a pipeline in an approved right-of-way corridor, so long as the corridor was approved within five years prior to the date of placement of the pipeline; and
  • Maintenance of a minor activity, other than any construction or major renovation or a building or facility.

BLM said that if no CX is applicable, or if existing NEPA analysis is inadequate or unavailable to support a proposed action, then it should prepare a new EA or, if necessary, a new EIS.

Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma told NGI's Shale Daily that employees at the BLM's field offices have known what regulatory tools are at their disposal. But getting them to use those tools, especially during the Obama administration, has been a challenge.

"It's hard to get a bureaucrat to follow a law proactively," Sgamma said Thursday. "It's much easier to say 'no, we're going to require you to do more NEPA because we're afraid that we could get sued by using a CX,' even though the law says that's the case."

Last April, 12 federal agencies, including Interior, agreed to follow permitting timetables designed to complete the reviews of major infrastructure projects within two years. President Trump also touched on speeding up the permitting process last February, when he unveiled a $4.4 trillion budget proposal for fiscal year 2019. The budget included $137.2 million for BLM to "expedite permitting to facilitate increased environmentally responsible energy development."

"They are trying to get NEPA timelines down to something reasonable," Sgamma said. "During the Obama administration, we saw only three large oil and natural gas projects get approved. That meant that the rest of the EISs for larger projects sat for eight years.

"NEPA timelines are out of control. This administration has clearly said they want to reduce those timelines."