Unprotected CX: Reps. DeGette, Lamborn differ greatly on BLM's 'categorical exclusions' for oil and gas drilling

By David O. Williams
Real AspenSeptember 9, 2011
U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., today lauded Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for sticking to his guns on the issue of categorical exclusions that allow oil and gas companies to skirt environmental regulations for drilling operations on federal lands.

According to Environment and Energy Daily, the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) “plans to issue a rulemaking that would place greater scrutiny on the use of categorical exclusions, or CXs, used to bypass traditional environmental reviews, according to sources familiar with the issue.”

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in 2009 found that between 2006 and 2008 the BLM used CXs to sign off on more than 6,100 oil and gas drilling permits in 20 states, mostly in the mountain west. The GAO also concluded that in 85 percent of those cases BLM officials failed to follow guidance and provide adequate justification for using CXs, which allow for drilling permits outside of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process in order to speed up production.

British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico was approved using a CX on April 6, 2009. A year later an explosion at the well sent millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.

“The BP oil spill disaster proved that allowing companies to take shortcuts is a bad idea,” DeGette said. “It's unfortunate that some continue to attempt an end-run around the law and protections for Colorado's water, air, and public lands.

“We need reasonable, common-sense solutions that allow for balanced energy development, and I commend Sec. Ken Salazar for his diligent work to ensure responsible energy policy in the West.”

U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., held a hearing today of the Energy and Mineral Resources Oversight Subcommittee entitled “Impacts to Onshore Jobs, Revenue, and Energy: Review and Status of Sec. 390 Categorical Exclusions of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.”

Lamborn argues that the Obama administration's tougher stance on CXs, which were implemented during the Bush administration under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, is yet one more regulatory hurdle standing in the way of increased domestic oil and gas production and more high-paying American jobs.

It's a theme the ranking Republican member of Colorado's congressional delegation has hammered on over the past year, and he raised it again in reaction to President Barack Obama's jobs speech Thursday night.

“Like all Americans, I support the president's goal to create more jobs,” Lamborn said in a prepared statement. “But I reject his big government solutions. I favor pro-growth policies that will allow business owners to invest with confidence and hire more workers. One common-sense place to start is by rolling back burdensome regulations.”

However, a recent report (pdf) by Montana-based Headwaters Economics indicates the domestic oil and gas industry doesn't need greater regulatory freedom. According to the report, the industry has added about 10,000 jobs a month so far this year.

“The energy sector today is experiencing rapid growth,” said Headwaters' Julia Haggerty, Ph.D. “Oil and natural gas drilling activity is now approaching a 30-year high, having made a strong recovery since reaching a recession-induced low in 2009. Market prices and advancements in drilling technology account for most of the increases in drilling activity.”

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., also issued a statement backing the Interior Department on the CX issue: “We need leasing reforms that make sure the public, for the first time, benefits from development of public land at least as much as the companies that get sweetheart deals and taxpayer subsidies.”

High Country News in 2010 dubbed Salazar's efforts to reform the process an exercise in “Safe(r) CX.”

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