Friday, November 21, 2008

Rant of the Week: Oil and Gas Leasing next to National Parks

Re: This AP article:

Uproar over federal drilling leases next to parks

To me, the deciding factor in exactly how horrible of an offense this is on part of the Bush Administration depends on whether these parcels were nominated by industry for the lease sale, or whether the BLM itself put these parcels up for lease.

The vast majority of leases are nominated by the oil and gas industry for regular (quarterly) lease sales. The BLM is a completely passive participant when this is the case. If a company nominates some parcels, they go up for auction. If this was the case for the areas next to the parks, this is not a “Bush administration ‘fire sale.’” (Unless, of course, if someone within the government asked industry to nominate these parcels. But if this was purely an issue of industry interest, the Bush administration had nothing to do with these parcels being nominated).

However, if the BLM itself nominated these parcels and put them up for auction, which it can do (see Roan Plateau), then there definitely was collusion by the Bush administration and it makes this intentional and quite despicable. One of Sierra’s quotes makes be believe this is indeed the case:

Roy said that when he asked Selma Sierra what was going on, she replied: "We added some tracts, sorry we didn't notify you.”

If industry did nominate these parcels, I fail to see how they would be added after the fact. I would guess that all the industry-nominated leases were submitted, then Sierra got a call from Washington telling her that these controversial parcels would also be added to the list. Yes sir Mr. Cheney, sir!

(However, I can’t let the Park Service get away with this talk about being “shocked.” They should not have been surprised in the least. These areas had been leased before. It’s not like BLM is opening up new areas for development. The Park Service knew darn well that any lease sale these parcels could be nominated and leased at any time.)

Okay, with that out of the way, let me try to argue that managing with buffers makes no sense from a land management standpoint and that BLM would have a hard time denying these leases from a legal and consistency perspective.

I guess it’s quite obvious that the lands the National Park Service want excluded from oil and gas development are not national parks and are not managed by the NPS. What’s the point of a National Park boundary when it seems some folks want surrounding lands managed like a National Park? So let’s say the government adds a 10-mile buffer on public land to every National Park, which would receive park-like restrictions. So then would we need another buffer to protect values of that buffer? An extreme question maybe, but can’t you see how buffers can be never-ending?

The government would be heading down a very slippery slope and set a precedent by buffering National Parks in Utah. The Utah BLM State Director is right that no policy exists for this, and there’s a reason for that. Why do you think there has never been this kind of buffer applied in the US? Because this has been discussed in detail before (even in environmentally friendly DOI’s such as Bruce Babbitt’s) and they’ve come to the realization that it’s infeasible and doesn’t make sense. Let’s slide down this slope, shall we? Let’s say we buffer all National Parks. Why should it stop there? Don’t State Parks have scenic values that warrant protection? What about National Wildlife Refuges? Wilderness areas? Wilderness Study Areas? Come on folks, these special designations apply to what is inside of these areas, not what is outside. Managing for values outside the special area opens a whole new can of worms in public land management. In addition to oil and gas development, should we close these areas to vehicle travel? Rights-of-way? Any other actions that would be visible looking outside from inside the park?

All stipulations on oil and gas development on federal minerals must be developed within a land use plan, BLM Resource Management Plans, to be exact. Not one RMP has these stipulations for buffers. If lands are not closed in an RMP, they are available for leasing and development. So BLM would have a very hard time making the case that these areas should not be leased. In fact, an oil or gas company would have grounds to sue the BLM for making an arbitrary and capricious decision to close those areas to development outside of their normal process.

The best way to handle this issue is to use the tools BLM has in its tool box to protect scenic values. All BLM lands have a Visual Resource Management (VRM) Class designation. VRM Classes range from Class I, which is extremely restrictive and is typically only used for wilderness areas and would allow only very minor modifications of the landscape, to VRM Class IV, which would allow a strip mine. A VRM Class II designation would allow for minor modifications of the landscape. Under this designation, BLM could require oil and gas operators to hide their infrastructure around topographic features and/or camouflage. This would be the best way to protect the viewshed from the park onto BLM land.

I agree looking beyond the arches in Arches National Park and seeing a gas well stinks. And I fully agree that if these parcels were put up for auction by the BLM and not oil and gas companies, this is yet another Bush Administration give away. However, I don’t think that closing a 10-mile buffer around the parks to oil and gas development is a logical solution for this problem.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Rant of the Week - Government audit of oil and gas leases

Back in June, I blogged about an effort in Congress to force oil and gas companies to develop their idle leases on federal land. If a company doesn’t drill a producing well on their lease within 10 years, it expires and would be available to re-lease at a later date. I made the case that energy development on our public lands is happening quite quickly enough for my tastes and that there is nothing wrong with having idle leases out there. So now our Government Accounting Office (GAO) looked into the issue and found (*gasp!*) that indeed there are a lot of acres out there that are going undeveloped. Here’s the AP article:

Report: Drilling on federal lands could be faster

Let me be frank: I think the findings and recommendations are a bunch of bullshit. The reason these areas are undeveloped lies solely with the oil and gas companies, not with broken agency processes or excess regulation. Sure, environmental reviews often take more than the mandated target of 30 days. However, the vast majority of these Applications for Permit to Drill (APDs) are on leases which have already been developed, not in these undeveloped areas. About 95% of the development that takes place on public land is within established producing oil and gas fields. Look where we’re seeing most development in the west now: Pinedale Anticline, Piceance Basin, Uinta Basin, etc. Companies are spending money where they are certain they’ll get good returns on their investments. Drilling holes in wildcat areas that haven’t been explored yet is financially risky and far less common. So if APDs are being held up, they are not for these undeveloped areas.

DOI lackey Stephen Allred is flat-out lying in the last paragraph of the article. Boy will I be glad to see these industry idiots leave in a couple months. No department has ever been as corrupt or incompetent as Bush's Department of the Interior. Contending that environmental reviews are holding up development amounts to nothing more than another Bush administration attempt to gut all environmental oversight and regulation. If you want to speed up the processing of APDs, increase the freaking BLM budget so they can hire more people to process them. But since that’s never going to happen, I guess we’ll have more deregulation to look forward to.

Regarding Allred’s assertion that we need to fast-track development, this already happened. Thanks to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Bureau of Land Management does not have to prepare Environmental Assessments (EAs) anymore for oil and gas wells that meet several new criteria. Instead, they can do a Categorical Exclusion (CX), which is little more than a one-page paperwork exercise. No impacts are analyzed and often no mitigation is applied in CXs. These are called "Section 390 CXs," and are being challenged in court by environmental groups.

In some cases, fast-tracking is appropriate. For example, if a company wanted to re-drill a well on an existing pad and there would be less than 5 acres of new disturbance, and the original well was already analyzed in an EA, then fast-tracking the well makes sense. However, other criteria overreach. For example, the act said that if the agency disclosed the impacts of many wells in a field development Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), all future wells in that area can be permitted by a CX. The problem with this is that a field development EIS is quite broad, and the exact locations of the wells might not be known at that point in time. Therefore, the analysis of environmental impacts is not assessed in enough detail in the EIS; the wells should be subject to individual review under EAs, not fast-tracked by using CXs.

Anyway, setting aside all the complicated details, it’s safe to say that we cannot responsibly move any farther towards fast-tracking oil and gas development than we already are. I shudder thinking what else our politicians might do trying to speed up development even more.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Professional Rant of the Week

A huge reason an Obama victory is so important.

Nicholas D. Kristof: Rejoin the World

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Rant of the Week: Obama the Socialist

McCain’s latest hook is his charge that Obama’s proposed tax plan is “socialism.” I clearly remember the right painting Gore and Kerry as “liberals,” but I’m surprised Rove never played the socialist card. Maybe they didn’t need to. This desperate attack is McCain’s last hope, and I don’t doubt it’s having some effect, if not only on the already fired-up right.

My first response to this charge would be similar to the charge that Obama is Muslim: So what if he is? Some Americans act as if socialism would end the world as we know it. They fail to see that socialist concepts are alive and well in America and even more so in Europe. We’ve got a public school system, Medicare and Medicaid. Socialism! Taxation has always had some element of redistribution. If the right wanted to yell “socialist!!” they should have done so long ago. It may be harder to make a billion dollars in a left-leaning European country, but these countries often rate out at the top in happiness matrixes. Oh no, fewer poor people and more happy people, the horror!

While all those reasons hold true, the biggest annoyance about the GOP’s charge it this: John McCain is trying to dupe Americans into thinking a government can run without tax dollars. He’s said time and time again that “no one should be paying higher taxes.” Give me some of what you’re smoking, John! McCain might say he’s planning on cutting spending enough to make up for not needing to raise taxes. Like what? McCain has bragged about how he’s going to cut $18 billion in earmarks. So McCain would cut less than 1% of our federal budget and that would eliminate the need for taxes? We’ve borrowed millions of dollars from China and other countries to pay for Bush’s war, subsides for corporations and out of control spending. No surprisingly, apparently McCain also favors this policy. I’m sick of our leaders whining, pandering, and peddling fear while pretending our government can run without taxes.

You can call it socialism. You can call it spreading the wealth around. I call it finally paying our bills.