New rules to improve energy development on federal lands

By Joshua Mantell

On March 17, 2015, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell addressed a packed house with a bold agenda for energy development on public lands for the next two years. This agenda focuses on locking in critical reforms that help protect wildlands, clean air, and clean water.

First up for the Department of Interior is to finish rules and regulations that modernize energy development on public lands. Currently 90% of federal oil and gas resources are available to energy development, so s smarter policies that better balance energy and conservation, and other guidelines that ensure values like recreation and wildlife habitat on federal lands are protected are needed to help correct this imbalance. The department’s oil and gas leasing reforms have already reduced conflict while improving the efficiency of leasing in more appropriate places and tools like master leasing plans are vital to planning ahead for better balance. New rules, such as the one released today, will build on the progress already made.

These changes will help ensure safe and responsible development, and better capture a fair return for the American people from the commercial development of these taxpayer-owned resources. Communities across the west near energy development are bearing a huge burden. Developers are operating under 30-year old regulations governing safety, technology, and royalty payments. Development sites are often in high quality hunting and fishing areas, popular hiking or mountain biking sites or important areas for ecological connectivity. And the agencies responsible for inspecting facilities don’t have the resources to visit a third of the highest-risk wells per year.

The first rule out of the gate under this reform agenda addresses hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – on the public lands that support 25% of the nation’s oil and gas development. A draft of the long-awaited rule was released in 2013. The additional time has clearly helped produce a stronger rule that better reflects current state of technology and requires improved practices for managing drilling fluids and constructing wells. The rule is not perfect, and falls short of what we recommended in several areas.

Nevertheless, it is a needed a step towards greater transparency that will undeniably raise the bar for safety and environmental performance across the west. Several states already have comparable or stronger rules in place, and, in the absence of federal authority to do more to regulate under clean water laws, those that do not should step up.

In the coming months, we will see more efforts to modernize energy development practices that will hopefully go even further.

  • A proposed rule is expected later this spring that could significantly reduce the tremendous amount of natural gas wasted through needless venting and flaring practices on public lands. This would decrease greenhouses gas emissions from federal lands, which are currently responsible for significant near-term warming in the atmosphere.
  • Rulemaking is currently open that would close gaps in the 30+ year old rules governing how royalties owed to taxpayers are calculated for oil, gas and coal on public lands. Investigation after investigation has found that the American public is not receiving a fair return for the development of these shared resources thanks to loopholes and deductions that riddle the collection system.
  • A final rule is expected later this year that would firmly establish wind and solar development on public lands. The BLM is proposing to evolve beyond a project-by-project approach and commit to identifying suitable areas for development with fewer conflicts. Such an approach significantly reduces permitting time and improves the certainty for developers.