Just days after the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation raised serious concerns about the Bureau of Land Management's plan to open up rock art-rich Nine Mile Canyon to 800 more gas wells, the agency is under the scrutiny of the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office for its extensive use of categorical exclusions to permit energy projects in Wyoming and Utah without environmental review, according to the Associated Press.
The practice, authorized by the 2005 Energy Act, has been used thousands of times at field offices in Price and Vernal, Utah; Farmington, N.M.; and Pinedale, Wyo., said GAO officials, citing the bureau's own figures. Agency officials say they were just doing their job, and that they don't set policy.
In Vernal, the BLM field office waived environmental review of oil and gas projects 491 times during the 2007 fiscal year alone, GAO officials told the AP.
With the BLM rushing to open much of Utah's red rock country to motorized recreation and oil and gas development, and permitting 3,700 new wells on Wyoming's Pinedale Anticline in the midst of ozone spikes and precipitous declines of mule deer and sage grouse populations, the scrutiny probably couldn't come at a better time.
But the information is not exactly a revelation: It's no secret that the Bush administration has worked hard to fast track the development of domestic natural gas and oil supplies at the expense of wildlife habitat, air quality, recreation, and cultural resources.
More important is what will be done with these numbers. Given that Democrats and Republicans are pushing for more domestic drilling, with both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain hammering that point in their energy platforms (albeit in different ways), it will be interesting to see if a new administration of either stripe will make any attempt to slow the natural gas rush on the West's public lands.