Interior report on drilling permits reveals notable gaps for wildlands

Flickr, BLM Nevada

On the face of it, a new report from the Department of Interior’s (DOI) Inspector General looks at delays in issuing drilling permits for oil and gas wells, but it ends up supporting the need for more drilling inspections. This is just another example of the need for a reality check on the urgency of rushing out more permits for an industry that isn’t using what they have.

Permitting delays

According to the report, applications for new permits submitted to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) can take anywhere from 30 to 300 days to be processed – wait times that are made longer by staffing shortages and incorrectly filed applications.

These numbers highlight inefficiencies and inconsistencies in the DOI’s review process, but they do not tell the whole story behind oil and gas permits.

One of the oil and gas industry’s main criticisms of the BLM is the time it takes for drilling permits to be approved. These permits are the last step before drilling on public land begins.

In fact, delays were often caused by the companies themselves – not the BLM. As noted by the Western Values Project, many applications were submitted incomplete and often took more than 200 days to be resubmitted correctly.

Photo: oil well on BLM Lands in Grand County, Utah. Credit: Flickr, Alan Cressler.

Permitting and wild lands

Further, while the oil and gas industry focuses on the perceived slowdowns they face in seeking new permits, they ignore the fact that the BLM has already approved over 6,700 drilling permits that are not being used. Additionally, the industry has leased over 23 million acres of land that is sitting idle.

While the BLM undoubtedly could use more staff and industry should certainly submit better permit applications, there is not a lack of land to develop or permits to develop it with right now. To the contrary, as the recent GAO report has shown, the real concern is with the amount of drilled wells that are not being inspected and are likely to harm our air and water.

The other important missing context for this report is the discrepancy between the amount of land leased each year for oil and gas development versus the amount of land put into permanent protection by the federal government. Despite repeated calls for balance, there is still far more land leased out for energy development than for conservation.

The Wilderness Society’s own research shows that acres for energy development consistently outpace acres protected - although so far in 2014 there is more conservation, thanks to the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument. However, over the course of the Obama administration, energy leasing still has a more than 2-to-1 edge over conservation.

View our research report below:

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Permitting concerns

There are additional concerns with some of the recommendations in the IG report. First, the report highlights having the oil and gas industry pay for resources to process their own permits as a best practice to be emulated – which is like asking the proverbial fox to guard the hen house.

Even more concerning, the report highlights conducting “virtual inspections” as another best practice so that the agency doesn’t have to bother actually visiting the site to be drilled. Given the challenges the BLM has with inspecting well sites after they are drilled, removing initial inspections on the suitability of sites seems to take a dangerously casual approach to our public lands.

It’s time to think about how the BLM can increase inspections of drilling that have already caused problems and focus less on how to turn the permitting process over to those who want to ignore the real need for resources to fulfill responsible management of all the values these wild lands hold.