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BLM's Permitting Practices Scrutinized

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, is looking into the way the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) may have bypassed some environmental reviews to issue oil and natural gas drilling permits across the West. One particular area of GAO's inquiry involves how some natural gas drilling permits were issued to Bill Barrett Corp. in the environmentally sensitive Nine Mile Canyon area of Utah, officials said.

The inquiry, requested by the House Natural Resources Committee and its subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, concerns a practice authorized under the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005, which allows some oil and gas drilling projects to be approved without a full environmental study of the consequences -- otherwise known as "categorical exclusions." GAO is reviewing the categorical exclusions for BLM-issued permits in Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming.

GAO's review follows a lawsuit filed by environmental groups against BLM for approving Bill Barrett Corp.'s request to drill 25 natural gas wells on the West Tavaputs Plateau in central Utah (see NGI, Aug. 11). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in May also voiced concern about BLM's approval of the Barrett permits (see NGI, June 2).

A staff lawyer for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), one of the environmental groups challenging the Barrett exclusions in Nine Mile Canyon, said BLM and the energy industry have treated the exclusions as a loophole to avoid environmental regulations.

"Congress established categorical exclusions to streamline the process, not to eviscerate it, but that's how the Bush administration has interpreted it," SUWA attorney Stephen Bloch said. "We certainly think there are some abuses happening and we're pleased GAO is going to look into it."

Barrett's long-term development in the Utah area includes drilling up to 807 new gas wells on 538 locations over a period of eight years. As each well has the potential to produce gas for up to 20 years, the life of the project could be around 28 years, BLM noted.

Barrett vice president for government affairs Duane Zavadil told Wyoming's Casper Star-Tribune that the inquiry was "political grandstanding."

"You have a couple of congressmen that know little to nothing about oil and gas and even less about public land management ordering an investigation into categorical exclusions by an agency that knows less than nothing about oil and gas and public lands management," he said.

According to BLM, 1,632 categorical exclusions were issued in Wyoming alone between August 2005 and September 2007. The Utah BLM office allowed categorical exclusions for 491 projects in fiscal 2007.

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