The Interior Department is moving at an "accelerated" pace on a programmatic environmental impact statement (EIS) to allow exploration and production off the Mid- and South Atlantic coast, department officials told a Senate committee last Thursday. The agency also said it has given the public an additional 60 days for a total of 90 days to comment on the proposed hydraulic fracturing (fracking) rule.

The original comment period on the draft fracking rule, which was issued by Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in mid-May, was 30 days (see NGI, May 20). Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the 60-day comment extension during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing.

More details on the exact timing of the comment deadline will be available in the coming days in the Federal Register, a department spokeswoman said. It appears that the new comment period deadline will expire on Aug. 23, said Dan Naatz, vice president of federal resources and political affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents small oil and gas producers.

Interior's announcement comes a few weeks after the IPAA requested that Interior extend the comment period by "no less than 120 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register." Obviously, "we would have liked more time, but this helps," Naatz said.

He said the IPAA is putting together a technical working group committee to look at the draft fracking rule. Asked if he thought Interior would issue a final fracking rule this year, he said "it depends on how many comments they get." Jewell estimated that the new rule already has attracted 177,000 comments.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) said the extension of the comment period on the fracking rule was the right decision, citing the number of questions that still remain unanswered. Industry will need the time to effectively review and comment on all of the existing various state and federal agency regulatory activities that overlap with much of what BLM is proposing. States have led the way in regulating hydraulic fracturing operations while protecting communities and the environment for decades," said Erik Milito, API director of upstream and industry operations.

As for the offshore, Interior is "doing the programmatic EIS right now" for developing the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), Jewell said. The objective of the programmatic EIS is to evaluate the potential environmental effects of multiple geological and geophysical studies in the Atlantic OCS.

"We have been pushing forward on this...We've accelerated the schedule. My sense of it is we are moving forward in a deliberate pace. We are very, very interested in getting this done. We're...not dragging our feet. We're telling our folks we want this environmental analysis done," said Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes. Even during this time of budget sequestration, "we are very committed to funding that effort and [bringing] it to completion."

Given that there will be "massive investments" by companies in developing the Atlantic OCS, "I think that this first step toward geological and geophysical analysis is important," Jewell said. "It will take time for industry to analyze that data and decide where their priorities are and where they want to lease."

When 2017 rolls around and the existing five-year offshore drilling plan is "regenerated, that will be the opportunity for people to actually do the exploration [and] production activity," she said.

Jewell said the programmatic EIS is going to be important in identifying whether obstacles exist to developing the Atlantic OCS. "But there's nothing that I'm aware of at this time." Hayes also said he was not aware of any problems.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the ranking Republican on the committee, pressed Jewell about why the federal government was requiring Alaska to pay for the remediation of legacy wells in the state, an effort that could runs into billions of dollars. Legacy wells were oil and gas wells drilled by the U.S. Geological Survey and Navy 30 to 40 years ago in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.

"There's got to be a better path forward that [doesn't] require the states to pay for federal well remediation efforts," Murkowski said.

"I completely agree that the legacy wells are a problem that...need to be solved," and "we need to work on how to pay for it because right now we don't have [sufficient funds]," Jewell said.

Jewell recommended that the revenue, both state and federal, that was assessed in the past though the use of these wells be used to help with the cleanup of the legacy wells.

Murkowski also raised another favorite issue of hers: the sharing of revenues from offshore drilling between states and the federal government. She and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) have proposed legislation promoting revenue-sharing. Jewell avoided commenting on the issue by saying she had not looked at the legislation yet. She said it is a "tricky situation."

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