Federal policies that impede energy development are in the crosshairs at agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, where the Interior Department has mandated a series of intensive reviews and identified a list of impending changes.
In a report released Wednesday, Interior noted key western issues its officers say may need reform. Those include sage grouse management, the permitting of oil and gas wells by the BLM and a proposed end or limitation on self-bonding for coal companies from the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement. The Environmental Protection Agency released a similar report outlining how its own rules were causing economic disruption.
These issues have an outsized effect in Wyoming, where much of the state’s surface area is federally owned, as well as its minerals like oil, gas and coal.
While energy sector operators have pressed for some of the changes mentioned in the report, others in Wyoming question how much more available the state can be for the energy business without sidelining other uses of public land. Wyoming is the top producer of federal gas and second for federal oil. Already this year key energy policies from the Obama era that affect Wyoming have been undone, or slated for repeal.
Praise of federal change
The report hadn’t been investigated by many Wyoming groups Wednesday afternoon, but much of what it contains was expected given Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s and President Donald Trump’s orders earlier this year to promote energy development.
Sen. John Barrasso said in a statement that the previous presidential administration had damaged energy development, and by extension, Wyoming workers.
“Now President Trump is cutting punishing red tape,” the senator said, noting “commonsense” EPA changes in particular.
The Petroleum Association of Wyoming was not able to comment immediately on the federal findings, but Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based industry group, said the Interior report was a positive sign of what the agencies are doing to ease bureaucratic hurdles to energy exploration and production.
“We’re glad to see that many of the challenges we identified to the department are being addressed,” Sgamma said.
The National Environmental Policy Act is holding up operators, she said.
The group has been vocal about its opposition to Obama’s policies, which the alliance considered burdensome or punitive.
Criticism of federal handling
Not everyone is impressed with the Trump administration’s changes so far this year.
Shannon Anderson, counsel for the landowners group the Powder River Basin Resource Council said much of the report appears to be old news. The group has pressed for updates in recent years to federal management of coal production and what it believes are outdated royalty guidelines. It’s also lobbied in favor of federal policies that protect the environment, like calculating energy development’s impact on climate change during project reviews.
So far the Trump administration has gone in the opposite direction of what many environmental groups want, like repeatedly attempting to ax a rule limiting methane emissions and undoing an Obama-era moratorium on coal leases until a review of the program, which was recently cancelled, was complete.
“Things are already rolled back about as far as they can go,” Anderson said of the administration’s whirlwind of rollbacks and reviews.
But support for the federal actions in recent months are odd, she said.
“A broad takeaway on this is we always talk about Washington-driven processes and how that is generally bad decision making,” Anderson said. “That’s exactly what this is: from the top. It’s not even BLM doing it, it’s (the Interior Department).”
This is the second time Anderson has witnessed the change of guard at the White House, and some of the issues, and the debates, are familiar.
The lawyer came on staff at the Powder River Basin Resource Council in 2007, the year before Obama took office. The country was in the midst of an economic recession and the early policies coming out of the Obama White House were focused on opening up federal lands to drilling, increasing productivity and revenue, she said. What’s associated with Obama now, came about gradually, she said.
Gov. Matt Mead and then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar held a surprise press conference in 2011 praising expedited coal leasing and the sale of $22 billion worth of Powder River Basin coal. Money from coal leases that followed built a number of Wyoming’s newest schools. However, those dollars are used up, and despite ending the coal moratorium, companies have not applied for new leases to revive that revenue stream in Wyoming.
The Obama policies now under fire from Washington came on gradually after the economy improved, and Wyoming became a frequent opponent of the administration in litigation, arguing that policy was hurting Wyoming’s bottom line, threatening its industries and its workforce.
Some of those policies are included in Wednesday’s report, slated for change.
In a statement, Zinke’s energy policy counselor, Vincent DeVito, applauded his boss’ steps toward undoing Obama’s regulations that “add little or no value,” while improving relationships with energy developers.
“The federal government can and must be a better business partner.”