BLM approving new wells near communities without essential environmental review

For too long now, the Bureau of Land Management, as well as other federal agencies, have been approving new oil and gas development without necessary environmental reviews. A recent article in the Casper Star-Tribune describes how this "fast-tracking" has been working in Wyoming, where wells were allowed near a farm without appropriate environmental review. The residents report black smoke in the air, dying plants, noise that prevented the family from sleeping, and children with nosebleeds.

The BLM is allowing these projects without environmental review because language in the 2005 Energy Policy Act passed by Congress--the same law that created the Halliburton Loophole that exempts fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act--created loopholes from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the law that requires environmental review of federal projects. According to the Star-Tribune investigation, the BLM's Casper office issued exemptions 111 times in 2013, and only conducted environmental review seven times. In the first four months of 2014, the Casper office issued 53 exemptions and only conducted two environmental assessments. The Star-Tribune review of the BLM's Buffalo, Wyoming office found 39 exemptions and two environmental reviews conducted between November, 2013 and April, 2014. These are too many oil and gas wells approved without environmental analysis that is needed to determine the impacts and how best to mitigate them, if possible. Without environmental review, industry gets a free pass.

A 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office found that the BLM had issued more than 6,000 oil and gas drilling exemptions from fiscal year 2006 through fiscal year 2008.

The widespread use of these exemptions from environmental review is bad enough, but GAO also found that the use of these exemptions "often did not comply with either the law or BLM’s guidance." GAO found "several types of violations of the law." In addition, it's not clear that the BLM is applying the guidelines for these exemptions consistently nationwide.

One example of an exemption is when the BLM says it has already conducted environmental review in an area and, therefore, it does not have to conduct any new analysis. However, the BLM is using old environmental reviews of shallow coalbed methane wells or conventional unfracked wells to approve proposals for a completely different type of well: deep horizontal oil and gas wells that involve horizontal fracking, significantly larger pads with more ground disturbance, much more extensive truck traffic, and different air quality impacts and threats to drinking water. These are significant environmental impacts that were never analyzed in previous environmental reviews and therefore should not be approved without new analysis.

This isn't just happening in Wyoming. Agencies have also been approving fracking projects in Colorado, North Dakota, Montana, New Mexico, California, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Ohio without proper environmental review. In 2013, a federal court found that the BLM violated NEPA when it failed to conduct the necessary analysis of the impacts of fracking for oil and gas leases in California.

NEPA was passed by Congress to identify the environmental impacts of a project, consider all costs and benefits, and develop alternatives that maximize the benefits while minimizing the costs. Then it gives the public an opportunity to review and comment on any decisions. Doing an end run around NEPA is wrong and cheats the environment and the American people out of the best possible outcome. It also means that agencies won't be considering how best to protect nearby communities, families, and sources of drinking water.

Congress should close the NEPA loopholes but, in the meantime, the BLM and other federal agencies should ensure they are conducting the environmental review needed to ensure that all impacts are considered, that the rules are applied consistently, and that no projects are approved without the public fully knowing the costs and benefits and having an opportunity to weigh in--just as NEPA intended.