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Bush Team Makes Federal Lands More Open to Oil, Gas Drilling

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration on Thursday directed government land managers to remove environmental and procedural obstacles that are slowing development of oil and gas resources in several areas in the West that have high potential for energy production.

Oil industry representatives applauded the policy changes, which they say will streamline the bureaucracy involved in energy production on federal lands.

But environmental groups accused the Bush administration of sacrificing environmental quality in its effort to boost energy production in government-managed areas.

The new policies, which take effect immediately and do not require congressional review, are the latest in a series of administration moves intended to boost oil and gas production on federal lands.

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The policies are directed at areas managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management in Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, Wyoming’s Powder River and Green River basins, Utah’s Uinta Basin, Colorado’s Piceance Basin and New Mexico’s San Juan Basin.

Bush administration officials said the environment would not be a victim of the new policies.

“Our overall objective is to ensure the timely development of these critical energy resources in an environmentally sound manner,” said Kathleen Clarke, the bureau’s director.

But environmental groups countered that the intent of the rules was to put environmental protection on the back burner.

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The new policies direct land managers to allow companies to make up for environmental damage in the areas with the highest energy potential by improving the environment elsewhere.

They are telling companies “you don’t have to worry about the harm from the project itself,” said Sharon Buccino, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington-based environmental organization. “That’s creating a sacrifice zone in acres where they want to go in and get the resource.”

The new policies also tell land managers to make sure companies are not forced to do any more than necessary to protect the land, water and wildlife nearby. They should ensure that “the mitigation is the least restrictive necessary to accomplish the desired protection,” the policy states.

Instead, environmentalists said, the government land managers should be told to require companies to undertake whatever measures are necessary to best protect the environment around the affected areas.

The new policies also give land managers the option to review existing leases for oil and gas drilling and reduce existing requirements on companies to protect the environment.

The initiative “exposes the real agenda of the administration, which is about promoting energy development. They’re not serious about protecting the environment,” Buccino charged.

But oil industry representatives said that the changes were necessary to address the current legal and bureaucratic quagmire that prevents them from efficiently producing oil and gas on federal lands.

“The problem with the status quo is that the regulatory process has gotten so burdensome ... and the threat of litigation [from environmental groups] at every step is so great that it has made it extremely difficult for independent producers to access these areas that have a very high potential for natural gas and oil production,” said Dan Naatz, director of federal resources at the Independent Petroleum Assn. of America, which represents thousands of independent oil and natural gas producers.

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In particular, the industry applauded the new requirements for land managers to meet regularly with oil and gas companies, make regulations more uniform from state to state and update old land-use plans that did not envision wide-scale energy development.

“It’s not a slam-dunk, but certainly it moves the process forward,” Naatz said.

The efforts are important, he added, because although the Bush administration has been “trying mightily” to increase energy production in the West, “what’s happening on the ground has not changed significantly.”


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