Feds sued for backing off fast-track drilling

AP News
Posted: Oct 27, 2010 1:28 PM
Feds sued for backing off fast-track drilling

A petroleum industry group has filed a lawsuit saying federal land managers lacked authority to stop fast-track approval of oil and gas drilling on public land in the West.

The Western Energy Alliance filed the lawsuit on Oct. 21 in U.S. District Court in Cheyenne, alleging the Interior Department needed public review to take the action.

The 2005 Energy Policy Act allowed the government to expedite approval of drilling permits under certain circumstances.

However, the Interior Department stopped many of those fast-track approvals under a legal settlement with environmental groups earlier this year.

The settlement has slowed approval of drilling on public land, said Kathleen Sgamma, government affairs director for the alliance.

"Permitting is just at a crawl right now. That's one of the impacts. When you can't get a permit, you can't develop natural gas and oil," Sgamma said.

The alliance is suing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, BLM Director Bob Abbey, U.S. Forest Service and Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell.

Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff declined to comment.

It's the second lawsuit the alliance has filed against the federal government recently. A suit filed Oct. 18 seeks movement on a government backlog of hundreds of oil and gas leases the BLM has sold but not issued in the Rocky Mountain West.

Both cases have been assigned to U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal.

The government fast-tracked nearly 7,000 oil and gas development projects from 2006 to 2008. Most were in Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah.

In a 2009 report, the Government Accountability Office criticized the way that BLM field offices often moved to approve such projects.

In western Wyoming, the Pinedale Field Office issued more than 1,200 fast-track permits during the three-year period.

Attorney Bruce Pendery, who represents the Wyoming Outdoor Council, said it was unfortunate that the BLM sidestepped fuller scrutiny of drilling so often to issue permits.

Sgamma said BLM approval time for drilling permits has slowed to 206 days on average, with some BLM field offices taking 18 months to issue permits. The process is getting in the way of creating jobs, she said.

Pendery said the sluggish economy probably has done more to slow drilling than federal policy.