It’s about time BLM fixed permit delays

Count us among those who consider Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s order to speed up approval of permits to drill for oil and natural gas on public land to be a good thing.

Leave it to Zinke to embrace an antagonistic stance by declaring, “The war on American energy is officially over.” Such hyperbole fits neatly into the Trump administration’s populist narrative that too much government bureaucracy and regulation has prevented the economy from running at full throttle.

But it’s only going to heighten tensions among environmental groups who see a different war brewing — a war on America’s public lands.

Given Zinke’s review of national monuments — seen by many as a thinly veiled attempt to re-open protected lands to development — Thursday’s order seems to reinforce fears of the federal government pandering to private interests.

But we’ve long maintained that the Bureau of Land Management’s permit-approval process is in need of an overhaul. Thursday’s order, which aims to reduce both the backlog of permit applications and the number of days to approve them, is a sensible response to a long-running problem.

These are permits on tracts of public land that the agency — through a public process — has determined are appropriate for development. But because it takes so long for drilling permits to get approved, energy producers often pursue privately held leases. Being able to move quickly on private land drives up the value of private leases, which is a boon to land owners and holders of mineral rights, but ultimately costs taxpayers.

When public leases are underutilized, there’s no return on the mineral value of the land — no revenue to defray costs of managing the land or revenue for local communities. Moreover, public lands tend to be more isolated and further away from towns and neighborhoods, reducing clashes over drilling.

But streamlining approvals for drill permits and leasing public lands for development brings out clashes over how we should manage public lands.

It’s an open question whether Zinke’s order will do much to spur energy development. As the Wilderness Society’s Nada Culver pointed out to Sentinel reporter Gary Harmon, energy producers have chosen not to move on approved permits on millions of acres of public land.

That doesn’t excuse a permit review process that takes an average of 227 days longer than the statutory maximum of 30 days. Companies may be holding off on drilling due to low prices on oil and natural gas, but that’s not a good reason to ignore what’s clearly a bureaucratic bottleneck.


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