We need a new national policy to protect public lands from oil and gas leasing

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for the enormous task of administering oil and gas leasing beneath 258 million acres of BLM land, 57 million acres of non-Federal ownership, and 385 million acres managed by other Federal agencies. For many years NRDC has been working to improve the oil and gas policies at the BLM.

The Bush administration dramatically increased oil and gas development on public wildlands from 2001-2009, helping the industry expand at the expense of the public and our lands, and trying to shortcut environmental review, environmental protection, and enforcement wherever possible. The Energy Policy Act of 2005, among other things, created seven BLM offices in the West that would expedite oil and gas permitting to help industry. Sadly, experts in other fields, such as biology, were reassigned to speed up oil and gas development at the expense of the BLM's other responsibilities to protect the land and its non-mineral values. There was no balance in the BLM's oversight of oil and gas development. The scales were heavily tipped in industry's favor.

That is why I was very disappointed to learn that there is a move in Congress to reauthorize these pilot programs. The BLM doesn't even have the proper staffing now to fully enforce its rules, yet some want to focus on new permitting that will lead to even more wells.

In Washington, the BLM instituted some leasing reforms in the early years of the Obama administration, but they haven't lived up to the promises that came with them. Since then, the BLM has proposed a very weak fracking rule, and is letting too much leasing go on without legally required environmental review. For these reasons and more, NRDC supports a moratorium on fracking on public lands.

While some of the BLM offices around the country have started to increase the environmental protections required under the law, there are still many BLM offices that appear to be operating almost as if President Bush was still in charge: full speed ahead with destructive oil and gas leasing without doing the required environmental reviews. There doesn't appear to be any unified vision about how the BLM should be carrying out its responsibilities.

This is even more frustrating when one compares it to how the BLM is managing renewable energy development on public lands. The offices tasked with permitting renewable energy projects, known as the Renewable Energy Coordinating Offices (RECOs), are starved for funds and staff.  Additionally troubling is that the BLM elected to open RECOs in only four states (California, Nevada, Arizona and Wyoming), leaving Western states with bountiful clean energy resources such as Montana and Oregon chronically understaffed and ill-equipped to permit new wind, geothermal, and solar projects.

The bottom line: there is still no balance in the BLM's oversight of federal oil and gas development.

As I mentioned, the BLM is doing some things right in a few locations, for example:

  • In northern New Mexico, the BLM has postponed new oil and gas leasing in an area "crisscrossed with streams that feed into the Chama River," and near the drinking water well for a local community.
  • In California, the BLM has commissioned an independent, statewide scientific review of the potential oil and gas drilling impacts on the environment, to be led by the California Council on Science and Technology and to be peer-reviewed.

But the BLM is also doing way too many things wrong around the country:

  • In eastern Wyoming, the BLM has ignored citizen complaints about wells being drilled without the proper environmental review for years, even though regulations require a response within ten days, and has allowed more than 700 gas wells to be drilled without responding.
  • In states across the country, the BLM has been approving new oil and gas development without conducting any environmental review of the impacts of the fracking techniques being used, including horizontal and directional drilling and fracking. These states include: Wyoming, Colorado, North Dakota, Montana, New Mexico, California, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Ohio.
  • In Alabama, the BLM proposed to lease over 43,000 acres in National Forests without any analysis of the impacts that industrial oil and gas development could have on the forests, wildlife, or on the communities that depend on them for clean air and drinking water.

And the BLM has not done any analysis of the impacts of oil and gas leasing on the health of residents of nearby communities in the lower 48 (an analysis was done in Alaska), despite requirements under federal law.

As I mentioned above, NRDC supports a fracking moratorium on public lands to protect communities, drinking water sources, and our natural resources from the uncontrolled fracking dangers of polluted air, toxic waste, contaminated water, and more. Instead of moving ahead with dangerous fossil fuels, we should be scaling up clean, renewable energy development by boosting energy efficiency and wind and solar energy.

Before fracking continues to expand on public land, the BLM needs a comprehensive overhaul of its policies that govern federal oil and gas development to ensure a 21st century regulatory program that protects every acre of federal land as required by law in a consistent manner. Even a better BLM fracking rule would be only one component of what's needed to properly protect our public lands and all of their natural resources from the damage and destruction that comes with oil and gas development.