Wild energy

Charles Levandosky is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colo. (hcn.org).
In November, quietly and without fanfare, Acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management Nina Rose Hatfield created a National Energy Office to carry out President Bush’s energy policy.

Its sole purpose, according to BLM documents, is to expedite drilling and mining on public lands.

Last May, Bush issued an executive order, stressing that his administration’s policy would be to increase production and transmission of energy. All public-lands agencies were ordered to expedite their review of permits regarding energy-related projects.

The national BLM office also sent state BLM directors a new set of rules. According to a memorandum from Hatfield, state BLM offices must justify in writing any decision that denies an oil, gas or coal permit. They must explain why “energy-related use cannot co-exist with other multiple uses of the land.”

The offices must also judge the impact of any adverse energy decision “in regards to production lost, missed exploration opportunities, etc., as well as steps taken to offset the losses.” With a heavy hand, the memorandum tilts the balance of competing uses of the land and protection of wildlife habitat toward energy production.

The BLM’s National Energy Office has set 43 tasks for itself, according to Director Erick Kaarlela. Tasks in Category 1 do not require regulations or legislation and should be completed within three to six months. In that time, the agency intends to shorten the time frame for approving applications for drilling permits, streamline procedures for obtaining coal leases and processing geothermal leases and remove obstacles to applications for energy-related rights-of-way.

Tasks that fall into Category 2 require action by the administration. One of the tasks outlined in this category states that the “BLM will look for opportunities to improve and streamline the management of the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process for all energy resource proposals.”

The BLM targets the NEPA process for energy proposals only. Yet federal mandate requires the BLM to manage the public lands for multiple uses while protecting the environmental integrity of those lands. No single use is supposed to be top dog—not energy production, not bird watching, not hunting.

Category 3 tasks require regulatory action. Tasks in this category include evaluating royalty rate reductions and other incentives or enhanced recovery of oil, policy changes relative to liability and reclamation, adopting a uniform policy to solve coal and coal bed methane conflicts and lowering royalty payments for the recovery of marginal coal resources.

Category 4 tasks require legislative action: reducing royalty rates for enhanced recovery of oil to extend the life of an oil field; determining the necessary steps for an environmentally sound development of oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; and amending the Mineral Leasing Act to streamline coal lease operations.

The BLM’s National Energy Office was created to be an in-house agent of the energy industry. Kaarlela says the memo sent to state BLM offices “isn’t meant in any way as a requirement to prevent or preclude decisions that may be contrary to energy development.” He says: “It’s just to ensure that people are aware of the president’s executive order and that we have a way of tracking the activity of the bureau.”

Kaarlela says that there’s no pressure on state BLM offices to rule for energy production. “We’re not trying to influence the decision-makers’ ultimate decisions.”

But the BLM doesn’t have an office of snowmobiles and off-road vehicles, and it doesn’t have an office for downhill and cross-country skiing. If it did, a public outcry would be justified. But now, the BLM does have a National Energy Office. And that office is clearly exerting enormous influence in favor of the energy industry.