The Interior Department, intent on boosting oil and gas production on federal lands, issued an order on Thursday designed to speed up the permitting process for drilling.
Coming on the heels of the Trump administration’s self-styled Energy Week in late June, Secretary Ryan Zinke’s order is its latest effort to loosen restrictions on the fossil fuel industry. The White House is pushing for more domestic oil, natural gas and coal production so that the United States can become a net energy exporter as part of President Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda.
The Interior Department said the average approval time for a drilling permit during the last fiscal year under the Obama administration was 257 days, though the most recent statistics suggest it was 220 days. The result of that approval pace, according to the agency, was that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had 2,802 drilling permit applications pending when Trump took office in late January.
Zinke said the aim of his order is to untangle the bureaucratic knot so the BLM can review permit applications within 30 days, as mandated by statute. He also ordered oil and gas lease sales be held in each state every quarter.
“The Department of the Interior will be a better neighbor,” Zinke said in a statement. “As is outlined in this order, we will look at ways to improve the process and make sure regulations serve their intended purpose rather than create a mountain of useless paperwork.”
Still, Zinke cautioned Thursday that working out the kinks of such a speedy approval system would take time. “This is not going to be done overnight,” he told reporters on a call.
Environmental groups criticized the move as yet another unnecessary handout to oil and gas companies, which already have considerable access to federal lands.
“Fast-tracking oil and gas exploitation on our public lands is wrong for America,” Sharon Buccino, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s land and wildlife program, said in a statement. “And it’s another sad example of the Trump administration’s fossil-fuel-first agenda.”
A number of factors account for the current delay in permitting, but one of the major reasons was that until recently companies filed via paper forms, rather than electronically. The BLM announced in late December that it was moving to a default electronic system, which it estimated would cut the average processing time to 115 days for 90 percent of all applications.
The vast majority of all BLM sites also lack archaeological and historic data, meaning they have to be physically surveyed before the agency grants a permit.
In a recent interview, Acting BLM Director Michael D. Nedd said the agency had been examining “how do we make certain that process doesn’t take so long” to ensure that the administration was following through on its commitment to promote domestic energy production.
The vast majority of onshore oil and gas production takes place on private and state land. Federal land accounts for only 4.8 percent and 11.3 percent of total U.S. crude oil and natural gas production respectively, according to data from Interior’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue.
Erik Milito, who directs the American Petroleum Institute’s upstream and industry operations, said in an interview that it often takes as little as 10 to 30 days to get a state permit to drill. If the federal government could shorten its time frame in a similar manner, he added, it would be “much easier to invest in those properties.”
Environmentalists counter that oil and gas firms let leases they already hold go to waste, often preventing those parcels from being used for camping or other recreational activities. According to the Wilderness Society, 12.7 million acres of public land of the 27 million acres currently under lease were in production during fiscal 2016.
Moreover, 7,950 approved permits were waiting to be used for drilling by the end of that fiscal year, Kate Macgregor, a deputy assistant secretary at Interior, told Congress last week.
“It’s not clear why processing more permits will do anything to produce more energy on public lands,” Nada Culver, a senior director at the Wilderness Society, said after Zinke’s announcement. “It seems to me to be the same message we keep hearing, but it doesn’t match up with the situation on the ground.”