When it comes to oil and gas, what we don’t know can hurt us

Mason Cummings/TWS

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) – a non-partisan agency responsible for oversight of government agencies for Congress – just released a report evaluating practices related to the management of publicly-owned oil and natural gas. Specifically, the GAO reviewed the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) current approach to mitigating environmental impacts from oil and gas development on public lands. The report paints a picture of disorganization and disarray in the agency’s approach to implementing measures intended to protect our public lands from impacts associated with oil and gas drilling.

As part of the BLM’s commitment to responsible energy development, the agency attaches environmentally protective requirements to the leases and permits issued to oil and gas operators. Lease and permit requirements as well as best management practices are essential to ensure the protection of important resources like air and water quality, wildlife, cultural sites and the land itself. However, operators may request exemptions from these requirements; and often do.

With this administration clearly working to open up more of our public lands to oil and gas development, and at a time when the majority of Americans do not support increased oil and gas activities on our public lands, these types of requirements are needed as much now as ever.

But, the GAO report found that the BLM does not track how these requirements are being applied or how well they are working to protect the environment. A review of 42 field offices throughout the West found:

  • BLM failed to consistently apply protective measures,
  • BLM failed to track decisions regarding exemptions for oil and gas operators,
  • BLM failed to implement adequate monitoring and inspection practices, and
  • BLM failed to involve the public input in decision-making for issuing exemptions.

Where’s the Data?

BLM field offices are not consistently tracking decisions regarding exemptions to lease and permit requirements. According to the GAO review, BLM has no standard process for considering and documenting exemptions and the public is rarely notified or given the opportunity to comment on exemption requests. In fact, “fewer than half [of field offices surveyed] tracked data on exception requests.” Based on its review the GAO concluded, “The extent to which BLM approves requests for exceptions to environmentally related lease and permit requirements is unknown because BLM does not have comprehensive or consistent data on these requests.” Given that many people, and natural resources, are near oil and gas development on public lands, it is crucial that the BLM do a better job of informing the public about how and why operators are allowed to be exempt from such clear requirements.

Taking the Public out of Public Lands

The agency’s failure to track this data and make decisions publicly available severely limits the public’s ability to understand and influence how our public lands are managed. As the GAO report states:

“Without access to information on how often exception requests are made and approved and the reasons for the decisions, the public may not have the information necessary to provide substantive input into BLM’s land use planning process.”

The public’s inability to know when and where BLM is granting exemptions limits our ability to engage effectively in land use planning. Without public engagement, the oil and gas industry is essentially given free reign over when, where and how development can occur.

This is especially troubling because public lands management is already rigged in favor of the oil and gas industry – with a staggering 90 percent of our public lands open to oil and gas leasing. A recent report from The Wilderness Society shows that the BLM automatically places our public lands on the highway to oil and gas leasing during land use planning. With the majority of our public lands open to oil and gas leasing, and the BLM granting exemptions from environmental protection measures without public input, our public resources are a giant giveaway to the oil and gas industry.

How to Get It Right

Identifying the flaws in the BLM’s management of oil and gas is only the first step. The GAO report highlights six key actions the BLM can take to improve its program. Included in that list are:

  • The BLM should develop guidance to ensure that field offices consistently consider, make decisions on, and track exemptions
  • The BLM should make the results of exemption decisions available to the public, such as on BLM’s public website
  • The BLM should implement a new approach for monitoring oil and gas activities that ensures inspections are consistently carried out and the agency is using monitoring data to assess the effectiveness of the agency’s mitigation efforts

It is important that the BLM’s management of our public resources is consistent and transparent across the board. The agency and industry must be accountable for meeting their requirements to apply measures to protect our environment from impacts associated with oil and gas development on public lands – and that requires monitoring the implementation and effectiveness of those measures and informing the public. The BLM should act swiftly on the GAO’s recommendations.