Interior will look at oil, gas land more closely before leasing

Asserting that “almost nobody is happy with the status quo,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the federal government will take more time to study federal lands that overlay oil and gas sources to determine if they’re eligible for drilling.

Energy companies will benefit from better scrutiny of public lands and greater public involvement because they’ll have to deal with fewer protests, Salazar said Wednesday.

Salazar blamed the Bush administration for allowing federal lands to be “the candy store of the oil and gas industry.”

Industry officials, however, said there is much to protest in the new approach.

“While the policy shift is not really surprising, the tone of the announcement was certainly a surprise,” said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association. “Equating some of the nation’s best geologists and smartest engineers with kids in a candy store marginalizes their vital contribution to identifying new domestic supplies of energy.”

In 1998, only 1 percent of oil and gas leases were protested, but that number rose to 40 percent in 2008, Salazar said in a telephone press conference announcing that the way federal lands are leased will be revamped.

In the future, companies and individuals still will nominate federal lands for leasing, but the Bureau of Land Management will decide whether to offer them for auction after a “detailed interdisciplinary review,” Salazar said.

An “energy reform team” will identify and carry out additional revisions, Salazar said.

Salazar’s approach drew support from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and several environmental organizations.

“We welcome the increased clarity and public engagement promised by the secretary in the federal minerals-leasing process,” said Steve Belinda, the partnership’s energy-policy manager.

The “common-sense reforms” Salazar is carrying out will reduce costs for taxpayers, said Ron Zucker of the Western Conservation Foundation.

The changes bring in a “command-and-control system in which government bureaucrats, rather than scientists with expertise in natural gas and oil development, dictate where energy development should occur,” said Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Intermountain Petroleum Association of Mountain States.

State Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, dismissed the changes as similar to the much-criticized rules governing drilling in Colorado, blamed by Republicans for contributing to drilling slowdowns.

“Why on earth would Secretary Salazar want to take Colorado’s job-killing energy rules national?” Penry said.

The drilling slowdown in Colorado is tied to the national economy and not new regulations, western Colorado land owner Peggy Utesch said.

“The industry wants the public to believe that children will be standing out cold on street corners because of a restoration of balance to what has been an out-of-control leasing program,” Utesch said.


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