Debate rages over the impact of federal regulations on drilling, jobs
Reprinted with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. Not for republication by Wyoming media.

A day after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved a major new natural gas drilling project in Utah to the cheers of elected leaders, a new study prepared for an industry trade group concludes that federal regulations have delayed 22 major drilling projects representing thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic impact.

The 30-page study released yesterday and prepared by a consulting firm for Denver-based Western Energy Alliance is the latest development in the ongoing — and sometimes fierce — debate over the Obama administration’s public land use policies and their impact on domestic energy production.

Prepared for the trade group by Las Vegas-based SWCA Environmental Consultants, the study examined 3,164 wells proposed on 22 projects in Utah and Wyoming that were under the environmental review process required by the National Environmental Policy Act as of Jan. 1. The NEPA process resulted in project delays that have prevented adding more than 120,000 jobs and resulted in the annual loss of $27.5 billion in economic activity and $139 million in government revenue over the life of the projects, according to the study.

“Our members, especially the small independent businesses who are the backbone of the Western economy, know firsthand how difficult it is to operate on public lands,” said Kathleen Sgamma, Western Energy Alliance’s vice president of government and public affairs. “This study provides hard evidence of how bureaucratic delays are adversely affecting small businesses and working families.”

Sgamma’s comments echo those of Republican leaders in the West after Salazar this week signed a record of decision approving Houston-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp.’s Greater Natural Buttes Area Gas Development Project in northeast Utah’s Uinta Basin. The project calls for drilling up to 3,675 new natural gas wells over a 10-year period inside a nearly 163,000-acre section of the Uinta Basin that is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, this week praised Interior’s approval of the project, but they also ripped Obama administration policies that they say have severely restricted energy development on federal land.

Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, this week accused Interior and U.S. EPA of holding up the Greater Natural Buttes project for years.

“If the Obama administration had simply done its job instead of playing politics, this project would already be well on its way to creating nearly 3,000 jobs and generating $5 billion in revenue,” Hastings said in a statement. “It is sad that what should be a minor record of decision for one project in Utah instead becomes a signature achievement of this administration — especially given their long record of blocking energy development.”

A complex issue

But the latest industry-funded study comes at a time of record oil production on public lands. Critics charge that industry has yet to develop most of the millions of acres of leases it already owns and that companies are sitting on several thousand unused drilling permits.

BLM Director Bob Abbey said last month that a slew of GOP bills designed to speed energy development on public lands are not “necessary or appropriate” and noted that the agency has taken aggressive steps to streamline the permitting process.

That includes launching a new automated system that could slash permitting times for onshore wells by two-thirds, down from an average wait time of 298 days.

“There are over 7,000 unused permits approved on public land, and those are just sitting there waiting to be developed. They’re ready to go,” said Brad Powell, energy director for Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project in Payson, Ariz.

“I would acknowledge that there are going to be projects, particularly those that are controversial or in sensitive areas, that are going to be slow. And the BLM’s own processes have not always worked as efficiently as liked,” Powell said. “But ultimately, industry is not constrained by those few projects not moving forward, because they have lots of land already under lease and projects approved for development.”

Indeed, two of the 11 major projects in Utah cited in the study as delayed by the NEPA process include the Greater Natural Buttes project approved this week and the 400-unit South Unit Oil and Gas Development Project in the Ashley National Forest in northeast Utah approved in February.

“The sky is not falling,” said Steve Bloch, energy program director and attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “These industry trade groups should stop their whining and acknowledge that Secretary Salazar’s oil and gas reforms are working.”

Click here to read the study.

Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.

(Banner photo by T. Larson/Flickr)

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