- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2017

Saying that the government had become far too slow in facilitating oil and gas development on federal lands, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Thursday signed an order directing his department to hold more lease sales and speed up permitting for energy exploration.

On a conference call with reporters, Mr. Zinke said the Interior Department must streamline its processes in order both to help produce more domestic energy and to let the government pull in more royalty revenue.

“It’s better to produce energy here under reasonable regulations than to watch it be produced overseas with no regulation,” he said. “We’re going to do it right. That means we’re going to hold industry accountable. We’re looking at how to make rules and regulations, strengthening those rules and regulations by simplifying, providing stability and streamlining the process upfront so a return on investment decisions can be made quickly.”

The move is part of the administration’s broader effort to promote more fossil fuel production. Energy exploration on government land fell dramatically during the Obama years, even as overall oil-and-gas production increased as a result of more drilling on private land.

Environmentalists have condemned Mr. Zinke’s push to open up public land for energy development, saying the administration has proved it is beholden to the oil industry.

But the secretary argued he’s merely following the law.

Federal law requires the Bureau of Land Management, a division of Interior, to hold quarterly lease sales. Those sales allow energy companies to bid on the rights to explore oil-and-gas reserves on government property.

The Obama administration had fallen far short of that mandated time frame, Mr. Zinke said, with 11 lease sales canceled or postponed last year. Last year saw the second-lowest amount of federal acreage leased over the past two decades; the lowest year was in 2011.

After lease sales, the law calls on Interior to issue or deny permits within 30 days. That time frame ballooned to an average of 257 days under the Obama administration, Mr. Zinke said.

Such a long wait time is problematic because lease sales are rendered null and void if companies don’t begin using the land within two years, meaning there was very little time between permit approval and the expiration date for companies to begin working.

“There’s a lease sale and then there’s a permitting process. To a degree, they have to match,” the secretary said. “We should go back to what the law states.”

Environmentalists panned the move, saying it perpetuates the burning of fossil fuels at a time when the government should be focusing only on clean energy.

“Trump and Zinke are trying to fast-track the climate disaster and destroy America’s public lands in the process,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It makes no sense to double down on our fossil fuel addiction. The science is clearer than ever: We need to move this country away from oil, gas and coal. That’s what will help preserve a livable climate for future generations, and it’s how we’ll protect the public lands that we all love so much.”

Despite those concerns, oil and gas will continue to play a central role in the nation’s energy portfolio for the foreseeable future.

Industry leaders say upholding law and returning stability to federal lease sales are key steps for both energy security and economic growth.

“Long-term business planning and certainty is a critical component to the leasing process for oil and natural gas producers. Reinstating quarterly lease sales is vital as independent producers consider future American energy opportunities on federal lands,” said Dan Naatz, senior vice president for government relations and political affairs at the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

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