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BLM trying to streamline gas well permitting process

Work on the Bush administration energy policy has renewed debate over government delays in processing gas drilling requests on public lands.

This week, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which opens its land to energy development, held a series of meetings in Denver to find ways to make its permitting process more efficient.

Oil and gas producers have long claimed that permitting requirements are time-consuming and burdensome.



“The issue has been around for a long time, but came to the forefront one and a half years ago when California was going dark and there was a lack of natural gas production. That brought (the issue of) our national energy dependency to the forefront,” said Dave Petrie, regulatory and environmental affairs manager for Tom Brown Inc., an oil and gas producer that operates in Garfield County.

“I think the government is trying to be proactive to streamline the process without trampling on environmental concerns,” Petrie said.



This week, the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States called on the BLM to make natural gas more available to producers, especially on BLM lands leased for oil and gas development but not permitted for drilling.

“Producers have to endure any number of bureaucratic delays and restrictions that limit access to lands they have leased. While producers wait for a decision from the BLM, the public is being deprived of an affordable source of natural gas and electricity,” said Andrew Bremner, IPAMS spokesman.

In a survey of BLM data, IPAMS found that applications to drill take an average of 87 days to be processed and issued by BLM. They’d like that process streamlined to take 30 days, Bremner said.

Drilling permits are regulated by the Department of Interior’s Onshore Order 1, Petrie said.

“It says permits have to be posted for 30 days for public comment and an EA (environmental assessment) done in that time, and at the end of that period a permit must be issued,” Petrie said.

Producers hire drilling rigs for a fixed amount of time, Petrie said, and pay $500,000 and $1 million to drill a well.

“When companies have to use a rig every day for a year, it’s hard to commit when you don’t know if you’re going to get a permit in 30 days or 100 days. You have to pay for rigs you have no location for,” he said. “I’d like to have a consistent and predictable timeframe.”

Williams, the largest natural gas producer in Garfield County, drills most of its wells on private land to avoid the federal permitting process.

“It’s so difficult to drill on federal lands, that’s why 83 percent of our wells are drilled on private land in the last three years,” said Dave Cesark, environmental specialist with Williams’ Parachute office. “It’s an extremely slow and tedious process.”

Williams currently has a plan to drill 160 wells north of Interstate 70 on the Naval Oil Shale Reserve, which was leased by the BLM to Williams three years ago.

The plan calls for the majority of the wells to be drilled from existing well pads using directional drilling. Another 39 new well locations would be drilled and four miles of road would be constructed.

Because BLM did not have the manpower to conduct an environmental assessment, Williams hired its own consultant.

“If you want things done in a reasonable time you have to pay for it,” Cesark said.

“As NEPA evolved, in the last 10 to 15 years, a lot of (EAs were) done in-house,” Petrie said, referring to the BLM process.

“It was almost an invisible process. They did all the EAs. As more concerned public got involved in air and water quality and archeology, the public comment period increased,” he said.

EAs and Environmental Impact Statements now take longer, EAs an average of 2 years or better and an EIS three years, Petrie said.

“There’s little (drilling) activity allowed during that process.”

Regulations also call for new EAs to be conducted if a new hole is drilled on an existing well pad.

“Last year we had 26 wells off existing pads, and one-half acre of disturbance, and we had to do two EAs,” Cesark said.

Petrie doesn’t hold out much hope for any solutions to come out of this week’s meetings.

In 1996 he sat on a task force convened by President Clinton to study federal drilling permits. While similar issues were identified, no recommendations were followed.

“BLM is going to have to sit down and make a decision on how to handle permitting and let us comment. BLM has to do the EAs. Let’s be honest, we’re in the oil and gas business,” Petrie said.


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