Earlier this week, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission posted a message on its website: The agency will no longer verbally approve drilling permits.
The decision means oil and gas companies will no longer be able to ask to have their permit applications expedited. Instead, they will have to wait the standard 30 to 60 days for the commission to review an application, said Mark Watson, interim state oil and gas supervisor.
The implications of the move were not immediately clear, industry advocates and critics said. The practice had not drawn much attention, and the extent to which such approvals were made was unknown, they said. Watson said the commission typically approved no more than two or three permits orally a week.
The announcement did highlight the increasing number of drilling applications being received by Wyoming regulators and the process used to review them.
An increase in the number of applications received, coupled with more regulations, was the primary reason for the change.
Previously, if an energy company wanted a permit expedited, it would call the oil and gas commission and ask for an oral approval. Regulators would then look at the application.
If all the items on the application's checklist had been completed -- a pre-site visit, a review of the well casing and disposal pits, and a host of other requirements -- an oil and gas commission staff member would orally approve the permit.
Instead of waiting the typical 30 to 60 days to complete a permit, a company would receive it right there and then.
"We’d help them out and say 'I can take 15-20 minutes to make sure everything can be taken care of," Watson said.
Today, drilling permits are subject to more regulations, like the state's new baseline water testing rule and sage grouse stipulations.
What once took a matter of minutes now takes hours of staff time, Watson said.
"I think the big issue is there are just more steps involved to get a permit approved," Watson said. "You have the same amount of people. You’re having to look at more items."
The number of drilling applications is also up.
The oil and gas commission received 406 applications in April. That is the most received since October, when 478 applications were submitted. It is also almost double the amount turned in each of the preceding five months.
The increase was driven by an uptick in the number of applications to drill oil wells. In April, the commission received 306 applications to drill oil wells, the most received in at least three years, and 52 more than the month with the second-most received applications, October 2013.
The Petroleum Association of Wyoming, an industry group, has long advocated for streamlining of the permitting process. It is unclear whether the decision to stop oral approval of permits will slow down that process or speed it up, said John Robitaille, the association's vice president.
"I really don’t have a feel for an extent for how often this was done," Robitaille said.
The new regulations over baseline water testing, which requires companies to sample groundwater in the vicinity of their wells before drilling, are an additional step industry has to manage, Robitaille said. But as familiarity with the new rule grows, permit processing times should fall, he said.
Jill Morrison, an organizer at the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowners group, applauded the move.
She worried that the influx of new applications was being driven by a desire by companies to receive their permits before new rules on setbacks between wells and residences' are approved. The oil and gas commission is reviewing the current 350-foot setback.
"Industry is going to rush and try to get as many permits as they can before they change the rules," Morrison said. "If I were a company, that’d be what I was doing."