Some Perspective On the Federal Lands Permit Process

The Dept. of Interior recently released information touting the 31 drilling permits the agency has approved since Acting Interior Secretary Scott de la Vega issued an order taking that authority away from career Bureau of Land Management staff. But is that number really something to brag about?

It is pertinent to understand that while drilling permits are still being approved, it’s happening at a drastically reduced rate. In addition to managing oil and gas development, the BLM is historically in charge of processing Applications for Permit to Drill (APDs) – a task that is handled by career staffers across the country. As the Government Accountability Office has explained:

“Each year, BLM receives more APDs than it can review.”

DOI’s 60-day permit moratorium decreased the number of employees who oversee APDs and this staff reduction has already hindered the ability for the BLM to process APDs at a similar rate. Just last week, BLM announced it had issued 31 drilling permits on federal land – a number they raise as impressive – but that number is more than half the amount of permits the agency previously had the ability to process. The average number of APDs the BLM issued weekly from 2014 to 2019 was 76.

In fact, DOI has actually revoked at least 70 permits that were approved by career staffers – who typically have this authorization – since the 60-day order was issued, saying they were “improperly approved.”

The BLM also reports that “All proposed drilling operations and related surface disturbance activities, as well as any change from an approved APD, must be approved before such activities are conducted,” many of which involve onsite reviews. Given DOI has already revoked some permits, will career staffers still be allowed to conduct these reviews or will those fall to the nine people now overseeing the permitting approval process?

Further, this doesn’t account for other permits and authorizations that must occur after an APD is issued and before well development can begin. These include the onshore Application for Transportation and Utility Systems and Facilities on Federal Lands and the offshore Revised Sidetrack in water with a depth of less than 500 feet.

In short, while the DOI’s announcement shows work is still being done, it’s hardly an assurance that bottlenecks won’t occur.

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