BLM Drilling Decisions Are Taking Place in the Dark

By institutionalizing the exclusion of the public, the BLM and industry have created a system that thrives on opacity and ensures that sensitive environmental resources are not being monitored to ensure they are utilized responsibly.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report this week detailing how oil and gas operations managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are often granted waivers to allow industry to conduct drilling activities without necessary environmental safeguards. These activities are often discreet, but their impact can be sizable in aggregate. The GAO also determined that BLM agency staff either ignored or failed to carry out necessary inspections to ensure that the special “lease stipulations” it granted were being properly applied and managed. Compounding matters, the BLM failed to keep even basic data about these waivers, ensuring that the public is kept in the dark regarding drilling on its public lands.

There are a number of institutional deficiencies at the BLM—reported on numerous occasions by the GAO—that continue to allow poor drilling practices to flourish unchecked to the detriment of our public resources. NRDC has detailed this repeatedly. Of course, it is not always the agency’s fault; industry has lobbied hard to game the system to support management allowances that exclusively favor their polluting ways.

But each GAO audit is still invaluable in demonstrating that, with the right prioritization and by soliciting input from the public, the BLM does have the means to address its deficiencies. The new report makes this point in discussing the fact that in 2010 the BLM adopted a more robust public planning process, resulting in improved outcomes that afforded more protections against inappropriate drilling. The waiver/lease stipulation process contrasts dramatically to the planning reforms, seemingly operating in an entirely different universe. The GAO found that by not allowing the public to participate in drilling decisions that previously were derived from the prior public planning process, the BLM has created a set of conditions that allow poor drilling practices to continue unchecked.

The lack of public transparency practiced by the BLM and an apparent disinterest by the agency in addressing it was a key theme of the GAO report. It found that:

  • “Without consistent and clear documentation of exception decisions, BLM may not be able to justify its decisions and provide reasonable assurance that its decisions were consistent with its responsibilities under NEPA.”
  • “BLM field offices have not effectively used monitoring inspection data to assess the effectiveness of best management practices to mitigate environmental impacts of oil and gas development. Consequently, the agency may be limited in its ability to understand and demonstrate the extent to which its lease and permit requirements have successfully mitigated the environmental impacts of oil and gas development.”
  • “Without access to information on how often exception requests are made and approved and the reasons for the decisions, the public may not have the information necessary to provide substantive input into BLM’s land use planning process.”

BLM field offices simply did not track the outcomes of the waivers that were granted to oil and gas operators, allowing drilling basically to persist on a good faith footing. Worse, the issuance of these lease waivers occurred behind closed doors, leading the GAO to conclude, “BLM generally did not involve the public when considering an operator’s request for an exception to a lease or permit requirements.”

Another shortcoming addressed by the GAO was that the BLM does not employ a consistent process for evaluating whether operations should qualify for waivers, or how to track the effectiveness of ongoing waivers. In fact, the BLM had not even considered a system to assess whether the ongoing implementation of waivers were in accordance with longstanding environmental performance requirements. The GAO wrote: “BLM generally does not use data collected from inspections to assess the effectiveness of permit requirements in mitigating environmental impacts” and “officials said they were unsure of the requirements for documenting environmental inspections.”

These are stunning shortcomings, especially when considering the BLM’s crucial responsibility to manage our natural resources for everyone, not just the oil and gas and industry. But by institutionalizing the exclusion of the public, the BLM and industry have created a system that thrives on opacity and ensures that sensitive environmental resources are not being monitored to ensure they are utilized responsibly. It has been said—far too often—before and bears repeating now: the BLM owes the American public much more than it’s offering.

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