Oil and Gas Drilling on Federal Land Headed for Faster Approvals, Zinke Says

Environmental groups say the plan for swifter approvals and leases is a giveaway to Big Oil.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, right, with Steve Bannon. Credit: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, at right with White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, says he plans to speed up oil and gas drilling permit approvals on federal lands so they take less than 30 days. Credit: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced plans Thursday to speed up the application process for oil and natural gas drilling on federal lands so permits are approved within 30 days—a move that drew immediate fire from environmental groups, especially in the West.

“Secretary Zinke’s order offers a solution in search of a problem,” said Nada Culver, senior director of agency policy and planning for The Wilderness Society.

“The oil and gas industry has been sitting on thousands of approved permits on their millions of acres of leased land for years now. The real problem here is this administration’s obsession with selling out more of our public lands to the oil and gas industry at the expense of the American people,” Culver said.

Under the law, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management has 30 days to grant or deny a permit—once all National Environmental Policy Act requirements are fulfilled. In 2016, Zinke said, the application process took an average of 257 days and the Obama administration cancelled or postponed 11 lease sales. Zinke intends to keep the entire process to under a month.

“This is just good government,” he said, referring to the order.

A 2016 Congressional Research Service report, widely cited by the oil and gas industry, points out that production of natural gas on private and state lands rose 55 percent from 2010 to 2015 and oil production rose more than 100 percent, while production on federal lands stayed flat or declined. Those numbers, the oil and gas industry says, suggest federal lands should contribute more to the energy mix and that Obama-era policies and processes cut drilling and gas extraction on those lands by making it slower and harder to gain access.

But that same report points out that while the permitting process is often faster on state and private land, a “private land versus federal land permitting regime does not lend itself to an ‘apples-to-apples’ comparison.”

The real driver behind the slowdown, environmental and land rights groups point, was oil prices, which fell during that same time period.

“The only people who think oil and gas companies don’t have enough public land to drill are oil and gas companies and the politicians they bought,” said Chris Saeger, executive director of the Montana-based Western Values Project, in a statement. “With historically low gas prices, these companies aren’t using millions of acres of leases they already have, so there’s no reason to hand over even more.”

Saeger’s group said that oil companies didn’t buy oil and gas leases that were offered on more than 22 million acres of federal land between 2008 and 2015, and the industry requested 7,000 fewer drilling permits between 2013 and 2015 than between 2007 and 2009.

The announcement Thursday comes after a series of other moves by the Trump administration intended to pave the way for oil and gas interests to gain access to public lands.

In April, President Donald Trump issued an executive order in which he aimed to open areas of the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans to drilling.  In May, Zinke announced that his agency would open areas of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska to oil and gas leases.