BLM Tweaks Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Policies

June 9, 2010

Amid the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the BLM announced May 17, 2010, that it has finalized changes in its policies regarding oil and gas drilling on lands that it manages. The new policies were sparked in part by public outrage over leasing approved in Utah in December 2008 shortly before the end of the Bush administration.

The changed policies apply only to new drilling areas; each BLM state director has the discretion to decide if the new policies should be used for existing areas.

Some of the highlights are:

  • Possibly greater consideration of effects on air quality, drinking water, wildlife, recreation, and other resources, including cumulative effects. The failure to address cumulative effects has long been a bone of contention to many critics of oil and gas drilling.

    For much more on the issue of cumulative effects, and identification of the states where oil and gas drilling occur, see the TipSheet of Nov. 11, 2009.

  • More public review of leasing plans. However, the agency says such reviews will occur only in certain areas, and only when new drilling is "significant." You will need to flesh out what these limitations mean.
  • Better coordination within the BLM and among reviewing agencies. Interagency battles have long been a part of the planning and approval processes, so ask questions to determine exactly what changes are envisioned.
  • More use of field visits to supplement or verify information. This could be a valuable adjustment to the usual process that can be dominated by planning-on-paper, but you'll have to track how it affects the plans you cover on a case-by-case basis.
  • More restrictive use of "categorical exclusions" that waive environmental reviews for drilling. The BLM now says it will allow CEs only under "extraordinary circumstances."

You may want to check with other federal, state, and tribal agencies to see if they are changing their planning and leasing policies. Controversies over oil and gas drilling continue to rage in many hotspots, such as the New York-Pennsylvania area, Texas, and the Rocky Mountain states.