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Grilling the BLM on drilling public lands


It was grill and drill time in the House Subcommittee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Members grilled Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell March 26 on the agencies’ proposed budgets. And Chairman Doug Lamborn of Colorado and other members had an emphatic answer to managing public lands and boosting the economy – “Drill!”

 Lamborn opened the hearing with a lament on how burdensome and duplicative regulations are strangling oil and gas production on federal lands. The latest insult, he complained, is a new fracking rule that makes modest changes to regulations that haven’t been updated in 30 years for a technology that has seen dramatic changes in just the last decade.

What about the record oil production we’ve seen? Lamborn doesn’t give the BLM the credit. He and other subcommittee members say that’s mostly thanks to the blizzard of leases and drilling permits approved by the previous administration and to private landowners who don’t impose burdensome and duplicative regulations.

What's the rush?

Lamborn and Co. just want the BLM to keep cranking out even more leases and drilling permits despite the fact that oil prices are plummeting, companies are cutting staffs and investments because of the low oil prices and natural gas prices remain at rock bottom. For politicians who believe government should run like a business, this really isn’t a smart allocation of resources.

As The Associated Press reported in early March, this country has so much crude “that it is running out of places to put it and that could drive oil and gasoline prices even lower in the coming months.”

Members of Congress want more federal land leased although 6,000 leases are sitting idle. Image: Judith KohlerMembers of Congress want more federal land leased although 6,000 leases are sitting idle. Image: Judith Kohler

Add to that the fact that millions of acres of leases are sitting idle and thousands of drilling permits aren’t being used. What business model would dictate that you keep pushing more “product” at rock bottom prices?

“Right now the industry holds leases on just over 34 million acres of public lands, an area roughly the size of Florida, though it is only producing from about one of three of those acres,” Kornze of the BLM told the House subcommittee last week.

Last year, Kornze continued, the BLM approved 4,400 drilling permits, nearly a third of which have gone unused. In fact, there’s a total of 6,000 drilling permits that are ready to go, that need no further action from BLM.

“They represent two years’ worth of drilling and a very significant commitment of staff time on behalf of the agency,” Kornze said. “We would like to see those approved permits put to work creating American energy and American jobs.”

Doesn’t sound like an agency bent on blocking drilling on public lands. 

Location matters

Maybe the real issue is the big shale oil plays aren’t on public lands, such as the Bakken in North Dakota. Much of Colorado’s oil drilling is on the state’s eastern plains, not the big tracts of public lands farther to the west.

“Is it at all possible that any of this production or new permits has something to do with where the resources are,” Rep.  Alan Lowenthal of California asked.

Yes. Location matters, it turns out.

“Oil and gas production follows market trends and geology rather than land ownership patterns,” Kornze said.

Proximity to big markets also affects where companies want to drill, he added.

While it might be nice for oil and gas companies to have a big bunch of federal leases on  their ledger, it’s not fair to expect American taxpayers to help fund the staff to process the permits and leases and write the environmental assessments just to make companies’ finances look  better. Some of that money would be put to better use hiring the additional 61 inspectors Kornze says BLM needs to oversee the 100,000 wells already operating on federal lands.

After all, as Rep. Lowenthal pointed out, our national public lands are supposed to be managed for multiple purposes, including hunting and fishing, recreation, wildlife watching. They are important water sources and provide key wildlife migration corridors and habitat.

The location and conservation of those resources matter as well.

Stepping up

Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development, a coalition led by the National Wildlife Federation, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Trout Unlimited, support providing enough funding to the BLM so it can ensure energy is developed responsibly and other important natural resources are conserved. The BLM needs the resources for smart planning, inspections and enforcement of common sense regulations, said Corey Fisher, energy team leader for Trout Unlimted.

“These are America’s lands and Americans value being able to hunt, fish, hike and camp on them and they value healthy fish and wildlife populations. That’s why our public lands are worth the investment,” said Ed Arnett, senior scientist with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

About the Author
Judith Kohler

Judith Kohler is the regional communications manager for the National Wildlife Federation in Boulder, Colo. Before joining NWF in 2011, she covered the environment, energy, politics and general news stories for The Associated Press in Colorado and Wyoming.

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