WASHINGTON – 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looking at issuing permits based on past studies of an entire project, even though some of those assessments may be outdated.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 expected to cover hundreds of anticipated new drilling applications.
President Bush and Congress 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.
The energy bill created new “categorical exclusions” under the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act 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 less than 150 acres and no more than five acres in any one spot are disturbed and where nearby drilling has occurred in the past five years.
“We don’t think there will be any environmental degradation,” BLM Deputy Director Jim Hughes said. “It’s basically going into areas where you’ve already got stuff happening…”