Secretary Salazar announces welcome oil and gas leasing reforms to restore law, order and balance to public land management

Yesterday Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a suite of agency initiatives to reform the process for federal oil and gas leasing (leasing on public lands or leasing of oil and gas that is owned by the federal government but is located beneath private lands).

These initiatives sound excellent. Here is a snapshot of what is good about the reform proposals:

1) Comprehensive reviews of parcels that are proposed for leasing: This means that agency staff will visit parcels to be leased in person to fully understand the characteristics and will identify areas of potential concern such as "air quality, watersheds, wilderness, wildlife, and nearby land uses." The agency has also committed to insuring that agency personnel with varied areas of expertise will participate in these reviews, such as widlife biologists, experts in archeological sites, and air quality experts. Believe it or not, these things were not required under the Bush administration.

2) Increased opportunities for public participation: The agency has said it will seek out interested individuals and organizations and encourage their involvement in the leasing process through review and comment on agency proposals.

3) A new emphasis on leasing in already-developed areas and careful planning of any leasing in new areas, including identification of measures such as Best Management Practices to protect the environment and mitigate negative impacts.

4) A revised policy for the use of 'categorical exclusions' from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). These exclusions basically exempt certain projects from NEPA analysis. The Bush administration used them even when there were extraordinary circumstances, such as such as impacts to protected species, historic or cultural resources, or human health and safety--even though this violated the guidelines of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. From now on, these exclusions will not be used in cases involving extraordinary circumstances.  

As stated by the Secretary, these reforms are intended to: " bring clarity, consistency, and public engagement to the onshore oil and gas leasing process while balancing the many resource values that the Bureau of Land Management is entrusted with protecting on behalf of the American people."

Why are these initiatives so critical?

As the Secretary explained in a press conference, during the Bush administration, oil and gas companies were "the kings of the world," who got whatever they wanted. The agency staff were directed to do the industry's bidding. Secretary Salazar also stated that America's public lands had become a "candy store" for the oil and gas industry, where companies could "walk in and take whatever they wanted" during the leasing process.

Yes, it has been that bad.

During the Bush administration, agency personnel such as wildlife biologists were re-assigned from their important work to instead rubber stamp oil and gas permit applications. Industry was given the green light to ravage some of America's most pristine lands and vital wildlife habitat. Harmful air pollution in the West skyrocketed, and wildlife populations suffered. Communities are concerned about health impacts, and private property has been polluted in split estate situations (where the federal government owns the oil or gas beneath private property).

Now Secretary Salazar is promising to right these wrongs and to give the public and a wide array of varied interests equal and balanced input into leasing decisions. The reform proposals are broad concepts, however, and many details need to be filled in before we know what their impact will be. NRDC will be watching closely over the implementation and the specifics of these proposals to hold the Secretary to his word. We also hope the administration will go farther and reverse some of the worst Bush policies still on the books. I expect there will still be agency proposals we oppose, but we are hopeful that the hostile corporate takeover of our public lands will be over.

There are additional reasons why yesterday's announcement is important.  

The Bush administration promoted resource extraction projects that were extremely controversial and generated a lot of public opposition. They opened up some the wildest lands and most valuable wildlife habitat--areas that Americans care deeply about and want protected, not exploited. In many cases, the Bush proposals also violated the law. The public challenged these offensive projects and NRDC and our partners often sued. We also often won. This meant that the Bush administration wasted millions of taxpayers dollars by having agency staff work on illegal projects, and then attempting to defend them in court.

Sadly, the Bush administration and its allies in industry tried to justify these wasteful and illegal moves by blaming the litigation on conservationists like NRDC, saying we challenged every project just for the heck of it. Of course, these statements were inaccurate.

Yesterday the Obama administration spoke the truth. The Director of the Bureau of Land Management, Bob Abbey, stated that more public participation, thorough environmental review of leasing proposals, and a balanced approach will lead to projects that are based on consensus and are much less controversial, with less litigation. Secretary Salazar pointed out that in 1998, a little over one percent of onshore leases were protested, but that number had jumped to forty percent by 2008 under the Bush policies.  What we heard today is a new emphasis on following the laws passed by Congress to protect our health and environment.

One of the core concepts of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is that transparency, accountability and opportunities for meaningful public participation during project consideration will increase consensus-based decisions and reduce controversy. Today's announcements were true to the spirit of NEPA, known as the magna carta of our environmental laws.

We have not yet seen the details of the reform proposals announced today, but we look forward to working with the Obama administration to further the goals of balance and responsible management of our public lands and natural resources .