Dems worry about federal drilling lease suspensions

Three Democrats are asking federal officials to look into the extended leases granted to certain oil and gas drillers on federal land. 

In a letter to the Government Accountability Office on Tuesday, the Democrats said they are concerned about the lease suspensions the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is issuing to drillers. 

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Regulators can suspend leases on federal land when operators show that their drilling work has been delayed by reasons beyond their control, such as bad weather, rig delays or other issues. 

The suspensions extend the term of the lease for as long as they’re issued, giving drillers the chance to hold onto their leases and start up their operations at a later date. 

But in their letter, Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) and Jared Polis (R-Colo.) questioned whether BLM regulators were approving too many lease suspensions, saying the agency many not have the resources necessary to ensure that operators are fulfilling the terms of the suspensions. 

“I am concerned that the BLM may be regularly approving lease suspension requests for reasons beyond what Congress envisioned when the authority was established,” the members wrote. 

“At a time when the government should be ensuring every dollar due to taxpayers is being collected, outdated policies and insufficient oversight resources may have created a significant loophole that allows operators to extend the life of a lease without proper scrutiny.”

Almost 10 percent of total leased acreage on federal land is held under a suspended lease, the Wilderness Society found in a December report. The Democrats cited an Inspector General study that found 99 percent of the suspended leases in 2009 came without the Interior Department monitoring that is required by federal law. 

The Democrats asked the GAO to study the “nature and extent” of lease suspensions and the ways regulators oversee those suspensions. 

“Although the Obama Administration has made significant improvements to the oversight of onshore oil and gas operations, insufficient resources have made it difficult to be certain that the BLM is able to meet all of its lease oversight goals,” they wrote.