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A federal agency's rush to sell oil and gas leases in Utah near national parks, wilderness-quality lands and Nine Mile Canyon's archaeological treasures is at the center of drilling reforms unveiled Wednesday by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
As he has done before, Salazar denounced the Bush administration's push for conventional energy development on public lands in the West, saying the strategy spurred legal battles costing taxpayers, oil and gas companies and conservation groups millions of dollars and delaying proper energy projects.
The Bush administration's view, Salazar said during a telephone news conference, "was that leasing should happen almost anywhere at whatever cost. ... The flaws came into sharp focus in Utah."
The secretary, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, was referring to a December 2008 lease sale at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Utah headquarters that came on the heels of long-term management plans now in court over alleged environmental shortcomings.
A federal judge last January halted the sale's progress, then blocked leases on 77 parcels near Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Dinosaur National Monument and Nine Mile Canyon.
Salazar's reforms, which affect drilling on public lands and offshore, mean the oil and gas industry still can nominate public-land parcels for lease sales, but before the sites are listed, BLM professionals will conduct on-the-ground analyses for potential resource conflicts.
The agency also will curb use of so-called categorical exclusions, which allow one broad environmental-impact statement on a drilling application to serve for all subsequent requests for drilling permits in the same area.
Conservationists have sued the government over such exclusions, arguing environmental law requires analysis of cumulative effects of drilling and that the exclusions are a loophole the Bush administration exploited to speed energy development in the West.
Salazar said the front-end work will allow more organizations and individuals with wildlife, cultural-resource and air-quality concerns to provide information that could counter -- or support -- industry interests.
The new approach will be more efficient and offer industry greater certainty about development prospects on leases they purchase, said Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Wilma Lewis.
"We will promote efficiency and effectiveness," Lewis said, "so we can be properly accountable to the American public."
"Almost nobody is satisfied with the status quo," Salazar added. "The public often feels shut out of the process."
As proof, he noted that, in 1998, only about 1 percent of oil and gas leases were under protest. By 2008, that number had risen to 40 percent. Salazar also noted that of the 43.6 million acres under lease now, only 12 million are in production.
Lease protests can take years to resolve. That does more to hamper proper resource development, Salazar said, than the reforms will.
During the news conference, Salazar lashed out at the oil and gas industry, accusing drillers of treating public lands in the West like a candy store.
"Under the previous administration, the oil and gas companies were [essentially] kings of the world, with Interior their handmaiden," Salazar said. "Those from the industry who are crying out are simply crying because we are being thoughtful and supporting development in the right way and the right places."
Utah's congressional delegation and industry representatives argued the new policies would harm the economy and accused President Barack Obama of trying an end-run around the 2005 Energy Policy Act.
Rep. Rob Bishop said he is "deeply frustrated" with the new restrictions on categorical exclusions, which he called one of the best success stories of the policy act.
"Congress directed [Interior] to use this valuable permitting tool," Bishop said, "and the [Obama] administration should not be seeking back-door ways to avoid its duty to do so. This is yet one more example of this administration's overreach and disregard for the law."
Sen. Orrin Hatch accused Obama of perpetrating economic suicide. "Americans won't forget it," he said, "when we are scrambling to find ways to deal with our nation's next energy crunch."
But Steve Bloch, conservation director and staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, noted that of 5 million acres in Utah under lease, 1.5 million acres are in production.
"Claims that the sky is falling are unfounded," he said.
Many conservationists, hunters and anglers agreed, and commended Salazar.
"We don't see today's announcement as 'new rules' for the industry. This is a clarification of law and standards that already exist," said Ann Morgan, vice president of public lands for The Wilderness Society.
"Changes in the federal government's approach to public-lands energy development were long overdue," said Steve Belinda, energy-policy manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
Settlement looms in Nine Mile suit
The new reforms in the nation's oil and gas leasing program would curb a provision in the 2005 Energy Policy Act regarding "categorical exclusions" and coincides with an imminent settlement of a lawsuit over drilling in Nine Mile Canyon.
Applying categorical exclusions lets one broad environmental-impact statement on one drilling application serve for all subsequent requests in that area.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Nine Mile Canyon Coalition and The Wilderness Society sued to stop the BLM's Price field office from using categorical exclusions for the Bill Barrett Corp. development of the West Tavaputs Plateau east of Price. The lawsuit claimed the BLM hadn't studied the cumulative effects of new wells approved under the measure as required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.
SUWA attorney Steve Bloch said settlement details cannot be released until the Justice Department approves, but added the terms are "consistent" with Salazar's reforms.
Categorical exclusions still can be used as long as they don't run afoul of NEPA's rules, which list which "extraordinary circumstances" would prevent the quick drilling approval.
Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, said categorical exclusions, or CXs, have been instrumental in encouraging energy development, and questioned Salazar's right to change how they are used.
"[Interior] cannot pick and choose which laws to follow," Sgamma said. "Congress, including then-Sens. Barack Obama and Ken Salazar, mandated the use of CXs where the environmental impact is minimal or where environmental analysis has already been completed; it did not provide Interior with discretion in their use."
But BLM Director Bob Abbey said the agency can issue such guidance without congressional intervention or approval. In fact, he said, the move helps respond to a Government Accountability Office report that found the BLM was inconsistent from state to state in granting categorical exclusions.
» U.S. Bureau of Land Management professionals will conduct on-the-ground analyses of lease parcels nominated by industry.
» The BLM will allow more public involvement before issuing lists of parcels for auction.
» The BLM will not allow a single environmental analysis to serve multiple drilling requests that pose potential harm to wildlife, cultural resources or human health.