U.S. Forest Service officials say they’re overwhelmed by the recent flood of permit applications from energy companies. On the Dakota Prairie National Grassland alone, drilling permit applications have jumped from 20 to 110 during the past year. To ease the workload, the agency wants to stop doing full-scale environmental assessments on smaller energy projects.
The agency proposed a new type of "categorical exclusion" — a designation for projects deemed to have no significant environmental impact, and which are therefore exempt from the studies required by the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act.
Under the new rule, drilling proposals with up to four drilling sites, three miles of pipeline, and two miles of roadwork would qualify for an exclusion, says Skip Underwood, the Forest Service’s director for minerals and geology management. The change would shrink permit-processing time for these projects from six months to two. Projects planned for wilderness areas, inventoried roadless areas, or designated critical habitat would still require a full environmental assessment.
Environmentalists say the change would allow the Forest Service to approve multiple small projects in an area without considering their cumulative effects. "A bunch of one-mile roads all over (an area) is going to have a huge impact," says Wayde Schafer of the Sierra Club’s North Dakota chapter. Critics add that the new rule cuts the public out of project planning and makes uninventoried roadless areas more vulnerable to drilling.
The proposed rule change will be published in the Federal Register shortly, Underwood says. The public will then have 60 days to comment before the Forest Service publishes a final version of the rule.