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PRB Oil Drilling

A rig operates in the vicinity of existing oil wells this May in the Powder River Basin. Liz Cheney is co-sponsoring a bill that would allow states to oversee oil and gas permitting, leasing and production on federal lands.

Rep. Liz Cheney is co-sponsoring a bill that would hand more control of oil and gas development on federal lands to the states, stoking fears from environmental groups that the range of access and protections from federal agencies is narrowing.

The Federal Land Freedom Act allows states to prove they have the enforcement muscle and regulatory infrastructure to oversee oil and gas permitting, leasing and production on available federal land. The bill’s proponents, including the congresswoman from Wyoming, say states have faced a decline in leasing on federal land in recent years under the Obama Administration. The bill would reverse that trend.

Despite the boom in oil and gas production during the Obama years, the actual acreage leased for industry has declined 30 percent since 2008, the bill argues in its preamble.

According to BLM records, its onshore oil and gas leases have not declined at exactly that rate. Between 2000 and 2008, average yearly leasing on BLM land was nearly 41 million acres. Between 2008 and 2016, that declined to about 36 million acres, a difference of about 12 percent.

The majority of oil and gas development in Wyoming takes place on federal land, or involves federal minerals, and a discussion of how to balance state and federal permitting responsibilities has been raised recently with state lawmakers.

The federal bill states that federal royalties would be unchanged by state takeover, but that states could levy fees on industry in addition to taxes. If royalties decrease by 20 percent in the year following state primacy, the feds will give states 180 days to stem the decline before considering revocation of the state’s authority.

The bill would still prohibit oil and gas development in national parks or wilderness areas and would allow development on land determined by federal agencies’ land management plans as open to drilling.

The bill does not mention explicit restrictions in the West, such habitat for sage grouse, which is spattered across public lands in Wyoming.

Environmental groups in the west are pushing back on the bill, which was introduced to the Natural Resource Committee in Washington on Wednesday, by Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah.

“Giving states unfettered access to oil and gas development on public lands – while at the same time stripping away environmental safeguards and important conservation policies that ensure our resources are developed responsibly – is fundamentally irresponsible,” said John Gale, conservation director for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers in an email.

A law allowing states to control oil and gas development would upset the balance of interests and uses of public lands, said Brad Brooks, director of the public lands campaign at The Wilderness Society.

“It gives the keys to all decision making on energy development to states and industry while blocking the public from enjoying their own lands,” Brooks said in statement. “Whether national parks, forests, wildlife refuges or BLM lands, America’s public lands belong to all of us and must be managed for the benefit of the entire nation, not just oil and gas companies.”

Cheney said the bill represents a better approach to regulations on the ground — let the states do it.

“The state of Wyoming is best suited to establish and implement processes for the exploration, development, and production of oil and gas on federal land,” said her spokeswoman Maddy Weast in an email Thursday.

Weast went on to criticize the backlog of drilling application at some of Wyoming’s BLM offices.

“In addition, the multi-year permitting requirements and delays associated with projects on federal lands are putting Wyoming at a competitive disadvantage,” she said. “This is unacceptable and harmful to our economy, which is why this legislation is needed.”

The idea that states could take a larger role in oil and gas development is not new in Wyoming.

The head of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission recently weighed in on the growing contingent in some states to take over permitting of oil and gas drilling on federal land, or with federal minerals.

In a meeting with state lawmakers, Supervisor Mark Watson said that Wyoming often processes applications to drill for oil and gas in a fraction of the time that Bureau of Land Management offices are able. Meanwhile, drilling practices that send wells out further underground is increasing the number of applications that trigger both state and federal oversight.

However, Watson was not sure how a proposed transfer of responsibility to the states would be implemented, and hesitated to comment on the viability of such a bill until he had seen it.

He did say that increased partnerships between state and federal regulators regarding some aspects of drilling for federal minerals could be beneficial in Wyoming.

Watson is tracking the federal land bill, but declined to comment on an early version of the bill Friday.

“I still agree with my previous comments at the minerals committee,” he said in an email. “That a [memorandum of understanding] with the BLM in Wyoming could be a more expeditious solution to reduce permitting times.”

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner


Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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