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Interior Department tightens leasing rules

Changes include additional environmental analysis.

The Interior Department Wednesday announced a tightening of environmental reviews before federal lands can be leased for oil and gas development, including more public comment and tougher restrictions on using congressionally approved means of expediting the leases.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the changes, which quickly received Republican and industry fire, are necessary to limit the litigation that he said has slowed down production on leases granted by the Bush administration, reduced industry certainty and wasted millions of taxpayer dollars.

Bush administration leasing occurred "almost anywhere at whatever cost," Salazar told reporters. He said that while less than 1 percent of Bureau of Land Management leases were legally challenged in 1998, 40 percent faced litigation in 2008, costing taxpayers millions.

The changes include additional environmental analysis, including a new interim guidance to BLM field managers that place new limits on improving "categorical exclusions" used to speed up environmental reviews of leasing.

These exclusions, authorized in 2005 energy legislation, will no longer be permitted in cases involving "extraordinary circumstances," which Interior officials said include adverse impacts on protected species and on cultural or historically significant resources. Interior Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Wilma Lewis will head an "energy reform" team that will look at other possible changes.

In a media call, BLM Director Bob Abbey said "we do anticipate that there may be a slowdown of reviewing" new leases due to the changes and that some leases granted during the Bush years may be reversed. But Salazar said the changes "will stop the essential logjam that we have seen over the last several years" due to the "headlong rush to leasing" under Bush that has been the subject of "enormous" litigation.

"So it's going to be smarter access to public lands," Salazar said.

The changes were applauded by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.

But Robert Dillon, spokesman for Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the only certainty provided by the changes "is that more production will be driven overseas."

American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard said Salazar was guilty of "familiar double talk" by the Obama administration.

"Under the guise of offering certainty for investors, Interior Secretary Salazar has taken steps to further delay and limit American energy resources for all Americans," Gerard said.