From gas leaks to raptor nests, federal officials investigate a number of impacts from potential oil gas development before wells can be drilled on Wyoming’s federal lands. An Interior Department advisory group may ask Congress to change that in some cases.
The Royalty Policy Committee – a group of state, federal, tribal and industry-minded representatives convened by the Trump administration last year — is developing a proposal that would allow companies to start drilling some wells without applying for a permit.
The recommendation was workshopped in a Lakewood, Colorado-meeting Thursday. Proposed by the committee’s onshore oil and gas sub group, the application exemption would cut the copious red tape slowing oil and gas development on public land and reduce duplicative analysis, proponents said.
Not everyone is eager for this idea to find its way into law. Conservationists say it would weaken the thorough look federal regulators give to environmental concerns and reduce public participation at a time when development on federal land in states like Wyoming is on the rise.
Filing a notice
Under the proposal, an oil and gas firm would be required to notify the Bureau of Land Management that it is planning to drill a well in an area that has already been analyzed for environmental and cultural concerns and that would be similar in characteristics to other wells in the area.
Federal officials would have about two weeks to determine if that notice is complete and up to 45 days to reject it. If the agency either approves the notice, or fails to take action within that timeframe, the company can move forward with drilling.
Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance presented the recommendations at the Thursday meeting. She stressed that the proposal will streamline a narrow category of wells.
“Were talking about certain situations, where a well meets certain criteria,” she said.
Offering this expedited process for drilling would also encourage drilling multiple wells on a single pad, a practice becoming commonplace in oil and gas fields.
That’s a good thing, said Sgamma at the meeting in Lakewood.
Consolidating drilling on one pad has far less of an impact on the landscape, she said.
As for public comment, these wells would only qualify for exemption from the application process if federal analysis had already been done, Sgamma said. That means the public has multiple chances to weigh in, from the high-level resource management plan development to the leasing stage.
Members of the policy committee pushed back on the lack of clarity in some portions of the recommendation, punting a vote for a later meeting.
A history of delays
Complaints about federal delays are not new in Wyoming.
Landscape-wide environmental impact studies can take many years to complete. Obtaining a federal permit to drill can take as long as two-years in the state.
Backlogs often accompany good commodity prices or new drilling techniques. During the coal bed methane boom, when gas prices were high, the Buffalo Field Office was overwhelmed with permit applications. More recently, drilling interest has shifted to the southern Powder River Basin, as has the increased pressure on federal agents to process permits. The Casper Field Office came under scrutiny last year for holding more than 500 applications for permit to drill on backlog.
Bureau of Land Management officials said the delay was largely due to a lack of resources and the state field offices have been working through that list. But the criticism was part of a push by the Interior to unburden mineral development on public lands, streamline permitting, speed up environmental analysis and increase lease sales.
The fruits of that effort have been clear in Wyoming. As the price of crude rose through 2017 and federal restrictions were contained, lease sales shot up and applications for permits to drill flooded the state.
Landowners and conservationists are watching the Royalty Policy’s work with discomfort, rebutting industry’s complaints that timing is an unfair burden.
Supporters of the federal mandate for extensive environmental, cultural and wildlife investigations before development, say nixing the application process for some wells could greatly reduce public input and upend the balance of wildlife, recreation and mineral development on federal land.
It’s also unclear just how much of development could move forward in Wyoming outside of the permit to drill application process if this proposal were moved forward by an act of Congress.
Shannon Anderson is a lawyer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council who’s tracked Wyoming industry for the group for more than a decade.
She said industry is being disingenuous with its claim that environmental analysis will happen at an earlier stage. Industry’s usual stance is that analysis during landscape management plans, or lease sales should be punted until the permitting stage.
“The [Bureau of Land Management] has always claimed that that permit-stage is where you can do the best analysis,” she said.
That has been the case in recent Wyoming debates where oil and gas conflicted with other concerns. Parcels of land offered in a mule deer migration corridor in western Wyoming were saddled with a lease notice obligating operators to develop drilling plans in concert with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The state agency noted that protections for that corridor will happen at the permitting stage.
The same has been true for drilling limitations due to sage grouse in Wyoming. Current language in federal management plans prioritize oil and gas leasing outside of important habitats. However, critics of that language, including Gov. Matt Mead, have insisted that protections are best applied during in the permitting phase. Prioritization has been targeted by the Interior Department as a likely cut in current revisions of sage grouse management plans.
“These are public lands,” Anderson said. “It’s not just about Wyoming. It’s not just about the companies. It’s about the public interest and what that means. There has to be that balance.”
The proposal from the Royalty Policy Committee’s onshore working group suggests a pilot project at a Bureau of Land Management field office. Wyoming’s Buffalo office in the northern Powder River Basin and the Carlsbad Field Office in New Mexico were alluded to as possible locations.
The Royalty Policy Committee will take up the issue again at a January meeting in Arizona. A representative for Wyoming’s governor sits on the committee.