Time to clean up outdated guidelines for energy development

Guidelines for energy development on our shared public lands are outdated and desperately in need of revision to protect our air, land and water and get a better deal for taxpayers.

It is past time to modernize how energy is developed in this country, particularly on our shared public lands. The policies and guidelines that govern where, when and how development should occur were written decades ago. Regulations setting oil and gas royalties date back to 1920, when Warren G. Harding was president and the basis for television technology was in its conception. Bonding requirements to ensure abandoned wells and mines are cleaned up were written in the groovy 1960s. The regulations governing surface mining are more than 30 years old. Wind and solar energy, although new to public lands, is being permitted using the same old-fashioned approach used for roads and telephone poles.

All the while, mining and drilling practices on our public lands have changed—with significant consequences for land, wildlife, air and communities. Moreover, the American public is increasingly in close contact with development as people settle near these lands. And our expectations for how to best use these lands has also changed. Recreation usage has grown, to over 59 million visitors annually, on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands alone. But the rules and expectations for operators haven’t kept pace with these changes.

Fortunately, things are beginning to shift. There are more than half a dozen revised rules in the works now that amount to the single largest focused effort to modernize energy production on public lands since the inception of many of these laws. Today, the BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) and other agencies within the Department of the Interior are beginning to bring the best available science, technology, and practices to managing energy development on public lands.

Today, for example, OSMRE proposed revised guidelines to prevent water pollution from coal mining. Over time, surface mining practices have destroyed streams once teaming with fish species, and used as summer swimming holes, contaminated groundwater resources and drinking water. The proposed protections will ensure restoration of our streams and over-mined areas using native tree and plant species so that these areas support ecosystems that existed before mining. New bonding requirements will provide accountability for environmental restoration so that communities can realize future economic benefits when the mines are gone. Perhaps most importantly, the new rule will prevent countless streams from being buried and destroyed by mine waste. Nevertheless, the proposed rule should be strengthened to ensure all aspects of the regulations are advancing protections for local communities. Updating mining practices to meet today’s expectations for environmental protection will help ensure that streams continue to provide drinking water, fishing, and sustenance to communities now and for future generations.

It’s the 21st Century. Let’s set aside nineteenth century practices and modernize our approach. It’s past time for clear expectations for responsible energy development on our public lands.