Energy & Environment

Trump administration looks to speed drilling permits

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The Trump administration wants to speed permits to drill for oil and natural gas on federal land and hold more auctions for drilling rights leases.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed a secretarial order Thursday to advance those two priorities, formally ordering the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to reduce permitting times and hold more frequent lease sales.

Zinke said it’s part of the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda, in which federal officials want to increase domestic production of fossil fuels and other energy sources and increase exports worldwide.

{mosads}The Thursday actions also fit with the administration’s rollbacks of numerous environmental standards, with a focus on rules affecting fossil fuel industries.

“There’s a reason why our energy revolution from 2008 forward has been primarily on private lands and state lands, and not federal lands. We have been particularly, I think, punitive in some ways,” Zinke told reporters Thursday.

His order asks the BLM to try to make permitting decisions for oil and gas drilling on federal land in 30 days. That’s the time frame required by law, but the actual time frame averaged 257 days last year, Zinke said, citing the agency’s data.

“Our intent is to strengthen our regulatory environment by streamlining, by providing stability where it’s not arbitrary and simplifying it. So if a company wants to operate commercially on federal land, then I think that return on investment should be known within a short period.”

The law also requires BLM lease sales once each quarter in every state with oil and gas rights available on federal land. But in recent years, the Obama administration canceled or skipped some sales when there was little or no interest among industry.

“I am, by law, statutorily required to lease quarterly, and more frequently if I determine that such sales are necessary,” Zinke said. “It directs BLM to follow the law on that.”

The order, in part, answers Republicans’ complaints that Obama administration policies made it too hard to drill for oil and gas on federal land.

They’ve pointed to reports showing that oil and gas production on federal land increased more slowly — or sometimes decreased — while it grew on state and private land.

In 2015, the most recent full year for which data are available, federal land produced 455,000 barrels of oil per day out of the country’s total of 9.4 billion barrels a day. Gas production was 3.2 billion cubic feet out of 28.7 billion cubic feet for the country as a whole.

Conservationists dismissed Zinke’s Thursday order, saying it’s unnecessary at best.

“Secretary Zinke’s order offers a solution in search of a problem,” Nada Culver, senior director of agency policy and planning at the Wilderness Society, said in a statement.

“The oil and gas industry has been sitting on thousands of approved permits on their millions of acres of leased land for years now. The real problem here is this Administration’s obsession with selling out more of our public lands to the oil and gas industry at the expense of the American people.”

Zinke’s order does not carry the full weight of law, and he conceded that it may take time to reduce the permitting time down to 30 days.

“This is not going to get done overnight, because what we don’t want is unintended consequences,” he said.

It’s also unclear how the order could affect an ongoing lawsuit regarding the requirement for quarterly lease sales.

The Western Energy Alliance sued Interior last year for not holding as many lease sales as it said are required, and the case hasn’t been resolved.

Tags federal land Interior Department Natural gas oil Ryan Zinke

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