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Categorical exclusions: Business as usual
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Categorical exclusions: Business as usual

BLM officials await word from feds before altering oil, gas drilling permit process

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GREEN RIVER -- Bureau of Land Management officials will wait for new guidelines from Washington, D.C., before changing the way the Wyoming office issues categorical exclusions for drilling permits, administrators said.

Categorical exclusions aim to fast track oil and gas development in energy states like Wyoming.

A report issued Sept. 16 by the Government Accountability Office -- the investigative arm of Congress -- was critical of the agency's use of categorical exclusions. The report recommended that lawmakers rework the rule to curtail misuse of the provision.

The report also recommended the BLM take three immediate, interim actions to reduce noncompliance with the rule, and to clarify how and when categorical exclusions are to be used.

The Bush-era policy allowed BLM administrators to bypass the painstaking normal environmental reviews for thousands of oil and gas drilling permits across the West, including hundreds approved for the lucrative Jonah and Pinedale Anticline gas fields in southwest Wyoming.

"Right now, we're just waiting for guidance from Washington," spokeswoman Cindy Wertz said from the BLM's state office in Cheyenne.

"Until then, everything will stay the same. ... For us, it's still business as usual until we are told something different from Washington," Wertz said in a phone interview.

In 2005, Congress and the Bush administration attempted to ramp up domestic energy development, in part by removing unnecessary hurdles to production that many lawmakers believed were bogging down the permitting process.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 established five new categorical exclusions specifically for oil and gas development.

The rule was met with criticism, however, from environmental groups, sportsmen and Gov. Dave Freudenthal, all who contended the tool didn't adequately protect big game habitat and migration corridors, particularly in southwest Wyoming.

The report detailed the results of the GAO's investigation into the BLM's use of categorical exclusions during fiscal years 2006 through 2008.

The report said during the two years studied, the BLM approved more than 22,000 new oil and gas drilling permits across 20 states, largely in the West. Categorical exclusions were used to approved approximately 6,100 of those permits.

BLM field offices in Wyoming approved 2,462 categorical exclusions for drilling permits during the two years, the most of any state, according to the GAO study.

The GAO report recommended that Congress consider amending the rule to clarify and resolve key issues with its use.

But until Congress acts, the report said the BLM should issue detailed and explicit guidance for the use of categorical exclusions.

Freudenthal repeated in a media release his desire to have full, project-level environmental analysis conducted for new drilling permits in Wyoming. He said Congress should address the issues raised in the GAO report.

"I don't really care how the analysis is done (for new drilling permits). ... I just want it done," Freudenthal said.

"We have too much at stake in Wyoming, in terms of air quality, water quality and wildlife in particular, to not take the hard look that [the National Environmental Policy Act] requires at some point," he said.

"To short circuit the process may serve some short-term interests of those who want to play fast and loose with the rules ... but the better folks in the industry understand that such an approach ultimately costs them in the long run," the governor said.

"These categorical exclusions are not categorically bad -- some make a great deal of sense -- (but) we need to cut with a scalpel, not with an axe."

Contact southwest Wyoming bureau reporter Jeff Gearino at 307-875-5359 or gearino@tribcsp.com

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