Bennett, state seek to block drilling reforms

Published May 19, 2010 7:01 pm
Politics » Senator unveils legislation; Herbert's aide threatens lawsuit.
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Utah officials launched a two-pronged attack Wednesday on the Interior Department's newly unveiled reforms for onshore oil and gas leasing.

Sen. Bob Bennett introduced legislation in Congress that would block what he fears would be increased red tape under the changes, which the Utah Republican warned would drive the nation's energy production "into a ditch."

And, on Utah's Capitol Hill, a top aide to Gov. Gary Herbert said that if Interior doesn't reconsider its drilling reforms, Utah might sue the federal government.

"The endless and redundant new red tape required under this policy is not designed to improve the production of our energy in an environmentally safe manner," Bennett said in a news release. "It is designed to stop new energy production before it can occur. We've all seen this play run before. It is the same 'analysis paralysis' trick from the same old playbook."

Bennett joined Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., in pushing the American Energy and Western Jobs Act. Both sit on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

"These regulations will do nothing to reduce litigation," Bennett said, "and will do everything to hamstring energy jobs and energy security."

Bennett's bill, which carries the backing of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also would require public input on the reforms -- something state officials found lacking in Interior's changes.

John Harja, director of the governor's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, told the Legislature's Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee that elected officials and their advisers want to know why Interior issued the reforms, announced Monday, without going through a formal rule-making procedure that would involve public hearings.

"They [Interior officials] have made their decision. They decided this is not a rule making," Harja said. While the governor could talk to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and ask federal officials for reconsideration, "I suspect they won't."

"Our option," Harja said, "really may come down to some sort of litigation over that and some related issues, unfortunately."

Harja was reporting to the committee from the Governor's Balanced Resource Council, which Herbert established to foster solutions to the increasingly polarized debate over public-land use, environmental concerns and resource development.

The council's chairman, Ted Wilson, Harja and Herbert's energy policy adviser, Dianne Nielson, discussed the matter with Interior officials Wednesday morning during a conference call.

Nielson reported that Interior officials said the reforms were "guidance," not rules, but that the changes -- which Salazar announced in January would come -- were final.

On Monday, U.S. Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey said a main point of the reforms was to ensure the agency did more front-end work on parcels industry representatives nominate for oil and gas drilling before an auction, rather than spend time and money on protests and lawsuits afterward.

"The consequence of not following this front-loaded process in the past has been significant protests and appeals, coupled with judicial restraints on development, job loss, and diminished access to energy resources," Abbey said in the Monday statement. "Instead of the BLM investing vast amounts of staff time and attention to defending lawsuits and revisiting the leasing process after receiving direction from the courts, our goal is to undertake important reviews in advance."

Bennett argues the changes would only slow energy development, not lawsuits.

Earlier this week, the Utah senator, who fell short in his bid earlier this month for the GOP nomination for a fourth term, warned additional reviews would mean "fewer jobs, less revenue for federal and state coffers, and less energy at a time when we clearly need it."

Interior's reforms also seek to develop master leasing plans, which Abbey said would include public involvement before leasing in certain areas where significant new oil and gas development is anticipated.

Nielson told the committee the announcement was vague on what "significant" meant and that it was up to the BLM to interpret this guidance.

Many of the reforms follow the recommendations of an interdisciplinary review team that studied a disputed December 2008 lease auction in Utah. After a federal judge halted progress on the sale, Salazar pulled the 77 leases named in a lawsuit filed by a coalition of conservation organizations headed by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Now, the long-range resource-management plans -- which the BLM crafted just before the lease sale -- are in question, Harja noted. "What they're saying is the process today is broken," he said, "and the 77 leases are evidence ... it's not working."

The reforms, Harja warned, would slow the BLM's leasing program, due to more environmental review. "If you're vetting and nothing is coming out the other end," he said, "of course you're not going to have any protests."

SUWA praised Interior's reforms as "long overdue" and necessary to restore balance to energy development in Utah and throughout the West.

"There is nothing nefarious about these policies, which compel the BLM to 'think first, then lease,' " said Stephen Bloch, an attorney with the environmental group. "We've seen what happened under the last administration's headlong rush to sell leases in Utah's remarkable red-rock wilderness under hastily completed land-use plans --litigation and gridlock."

Even before the reforms were announced, BLM critics have said guidance that leads to specific outcomes is, in fact, a rule and therefore needs to include the public.

BLM spokesman Matt Spangler said the reforms were issued as "instruction memorandums." Such directives provide clarification and additional guidance for state and field offices.

What Bennett's bill would do

Assessment » Force the Interior Department to assess how proposed changes to onshore oil and natural-gas leasing would affect the economy.

Certification » Require the department to certify that policy changes would not cost jobs, increase dependence on foreign oil and gas, or decrease revenues for federal and state governments.

Notice » Require public notice and comment on proposed changes.

Refer to Bennet BLM

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