- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2005

In an aggressive push by the Bush administration to open more public land to oil and gas production, the Interior Department has quit conducting environmental reviews and seeking comments from local residents every time drilling companies propose new wells.

Field officials have been told to begin looking at issuing permits based on past studies of an entire project, even though some of those assessments may be outdated. The instructions are in a directive from the department’s Bureau of Land Management and are expected to cover hundreds of anticipated new drilling applications.

Congress and President Bush authorized the streamlining as part of a 1,724-page energy bill signed into law in August. BLM officials, saying the need for energy supplies is immediate, showed unusual speed implementing it. Kathleen Clarke, the agency’s director, sent out the new guidance Sept. 30.

“Yes, it is a priority of the White House,” BLM Deputy Director Jim Hughes said. “We are moving expeditiously to implement the law. We think all these items will increase the supply this winter. However, everyone is saying it won’t be enough to wipe out the impact of the hurricanes and all that.”

The energy bill created new “categorical exclusions” under the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for allowing new oil, gas and geothermal wells without first conducting environmental studies or soliciting public comment on them.

The exclusions from normal permit requirements cover instances when fewer than 150 acres and no more than 5 acres in any one spot are disturbed and where nearby drilling has been done in the past five years.

“We don’t think there will be any environmental degradation,” Mr. Hughes said. “It’s basically going into areas where you’ve already got stuff happening, where you’ve got existing NEPA work that had been completed. We think in many cases this is just duplicative work.”

Energy producers would still be required to comply with other environmental laws, such as those intended to protect endangered species, air and water quality and cultural artifacts.

So far, no new permits have been issued under the new guidance.


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