Gas drilling ‘shortcuts’ imperil wildlife, water, western lands
and Bob Elderkin
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Four years ago, in the midst of the Rocky Mountain West’s most recent energy boom, oil and gas companies wanted to drill as quickly as possible while prices and profits were peaking.
But common-sense measures designed to protect the West’s wildlife, water and land that are at the core of our heritage and sustainable economies were in the way. So the gas drilling industry turned to the previous administration to speed up the approval process.
And “categorical exclusions”, an obscure regulatory tool little known beyond industry insiders, became an especially useful way to accelerate approval of drilling permits. If industry could simply apply an approval from a previous project to cover new drilling plans, the cumulative impacts to wildlife and water protection could be ignored. A regulatory tool thus could essentially become a free pass for industry that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management could provide.
The subsequent passage of the Energy Act of 2005, with its overall goal of making it easier to drill for oil and gas, gave the industry what it wanted, allowing gas drilling and pipeline construction to happen with minimal review.
A new report released this week by the U.S. General Accounting office found that BLM field offices in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico have issued permits in a manner that “has frequently been out of compliance with both the law and BLM’s guidance.” As a result, drilling permitted through “categorical exclusions” since 2005 have scoured and punctured critical wildlife habitat, threatened water supplies, altered landscapes and polluted once pure air with ozone levels rivaling Los Angeles.
The original intent of these categorical exclusions was to be limited and applied only to individual projects over small areas. The 2005 Energy Act changed that.
According to the GAO, in a two-year period beginning in the fall of 2006, BLM regulators – under orders from their Washington D.C. office – granted nearly 6,300 categorical exclusions for drilling projects in four Rocky Mountain states. In Wyoming alone, BLM granted 2,987 categorical exclusions, including 1,522 in and around the once pristine community of Pinedale in the Upper Green River Valley.
Farther south, BLM’s Farmington, New Mexico field office issued 1,389 categorical exclusions in the two-year period.
In Colorado, the Glenwood Springs field office issued 474 categorical exclusions. And the Vernal, Utah office issued 1,149 during the same time period.
Under the new rules, if a company wanted to expand the size and number of wells for a project, it simply requested a categorical exclusion from the BLM, even if the new project drove mule deer, pronghorn antelope and sage grouse from the land. The West’s iconic wildlife species and signature landscapes were roughed over and pushed aside in places such as Pinedale, northwest Colorado, the Four Corners region and elsewhere.
Eventually, so many exceptions and exclusions resulted in significant cumulative impacts causing serious, long-term harm to the Western lands that define us as a region to the nation and world.
Wildlife researchers have verified that some of the West’s most iconic and economically important wildlife, including mule deer, pronghorn antelope and sage grouse, have all had populations impacted during the energy boom. Sage grouse are now under serious considerations for listing as a federal endangered species, a decision that could restrict energy development and other activities.
As avid hunters and anglers with decades of experience as state or federal resource managers, we fully understand the urgency of balancing energy development with the protection of our Western wildlife heritage. We urge our lawmakers and federal land managers to take two important steps.
First, Congress needs to approve, and the President needs to sign, new legislation that curtails abuses of these categorical exclusions and restricts them to their intended, narrow focus.
Second, federal land managers need to have support from the President on down to local field offices to allow them to use existing rules as they do the jobs they were hired for – managing our public lands for multiple use.
Responsible energy development can and should occur, but only after the needs of wildlife, water and our Western lands have been fully considered and addressed.
Walt Gasson, executive director, Wyoming Wildlife Federation.
Oscar Simpson, conservation director, New Mexico Wildlife Federation.
Bob Elderkin, member, Colorado Wildlife Federation
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