Agencies collaborate to manage drilling on public lands

In a unusual bid to improve energy security while safeguarding air quality, three federal agencies have signed a memorandum of understanding to streamline the process of mitigating the environmental impact of oil and gas drilling on public lands.

The Environmental Protection Agency along with the Agriculture and Interior departments committed on June 24 to "a clearly defined efficient approach to compliance" with the National Environmental Policy Act to balance air quality, humans and the environment with national energy needs.

The plan for interagency cooperation, inspired by an approach taken earlier this year at the Greater Natural Buttes gas project in Utah, includes "common procedures for determining what type of air quality analyses are appropriate and when air modeling is necessary; specific provisions for analyzing and discussing impacts to air quality and for mitigating such impacts; and a dispute resolution process to facilitate timely resolution of differences among agencies."

Experience has shown that project approvals often were delayed because of differing agency protocols on such tasks as measuring air quality and granting permits.

"Working with our federal partners, we are committed to delivering an environmental review process that is both transparent and comprehensive, supporting responsible domestic energy production on federal lands while ensuring environmental protection," EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe said.

Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes added the agencies "want to build on lessons learned to establish clearer lines of communication and a predictable, common-sense process for ensuring prompt and thorough reviews of proposed oil and gas projects."

The memo is "a good example of what the president called for in his State of the Union address to find creative and innovative ways for government to work better together," said Kathleen Merrigan, Agriculture deputy secretary.

Bobby McEnaney, senior public lands analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, noted the initiative is unique. "I'm encouraged by the kind of energy and thinking the EPA and [Interior's Bureau of Land Management] put into this," he said. "Rather than resting on their regulatory laurels, they really looked at the outstanding issues, such as pollution and time to permit so that every interest is fully represented in a more expedient manner."

The American Petroleum Institute also praised the effort. "We welcome any attempt to streamline the permit process and hope this will move us in that direction," said Carlton Carroll, media relations representative.

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