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Bush turns BLM into energy machine


In November, quietly and without fanfare, Acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management Nina Rose Hatfield created a National Energy Office to implement President Bush's energy policy.

Its sole purpose, according to BLM documents, is to expedite drilling and mining on public lands.

Last May, Bush issued Executive Order 13212, which stresses that it will be his administration's policy to increase production and transmission of energy. And all public-lands agencies are ordered to expedite their review of permits for energy-related projects.

By creating the new office, a stark message has been sent to state BLM directors: Exploration of energy resources is now the primary goal of the agency. To reinforce the primacy of energy-related activities, the national BLM office sent state BLM directors a set of rules regarding decisions or actions that would adversely impact energy development.

According to a Dec. 12 memorandum from Acting Director Hatfield, state BLM offices must justify in writing any decision that denies an oil or gas or coal permit. They must explain why the "energy-related use cannot co-exist with other multiple uses of the land."

The offices must also make a judgment concerning the impact of any adverse energy decision "in regards to production lost, missed exploration opportunities, etc., as well as steps taken to offset the losses." With a heavy hand, the memorandum tilts the balance of competing uses of the land and protection of wildlife habitat toward energy production.

The BLM's National Energy Office has set 43 tasks for itself, according to Director Erick Kaarlela. Tasks in Category 1 do not require regulations or legislation and should be completed within three to six months, according to BLM documents. Within that period, the agency intends to shorten the time frame for approving applications for permits to drill, to streamline procedures for obtaining coal leases and processing pending geothermal leases, and to remove obstacles to applications for energy-related rights-of-way.

Tasks that fall into Category 2 require action by the administration. One of the tasks outlined in this category states that the "BLM will look for opportunities to improve and streamline the management of the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process for all energy resource proposals." The BLM targets the NEPA process for energy proposals only. Yet federal mandate requires the BLM to manage the public lands for multiple use while protecting the environmental integrity of those lands. No single use is supposed to be top dog - not energy production, not bird-watching, not cross-country skiing.

Category 3 tasks require regulatory action. Tasks outlined in this category include evaluating royalty rate reductions and other incentives for enhanced recovery of oil, policy changes relative to liability and reclamation, adopting a uniform policy to solve coal and coalbed methane conflicts and lowering royalty payments for the recovery of uneconomic or marginally economic coal resources.

Category 4 tasks require legislative action: reducing royalty rates for enhanced recovery of oil to extend the life of an oil field; determining the necessary steps for an environmentally sound development of oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; and amending the Mineral Leasing Act to streamline coal-lease operations.

The BLM's National Energy Office was created to be an in-house agent of the energy industry. Kaarlela reinforced that concept in a Feb. 1 interview. He considers the main function of his office to be "coordinating the activity on federal land that the bureau has a responsibility for managing." According to Kaarlela, "That ranges from leasing the land for energy development, approval of permits for energy development, including such things as rights-of-ways for pipelines and transmission of energy across federal land. We're looking at those sorts of things; rights-of-way for wind power and solar power would be part of that, also."

Kaarlela says the memorandum sent to state BLM offices "isn't meant in any way as a requirement to prevent or preclude decisions that may be contrary to energy development." Then Kaarlela gives it away: "It's just to ensure that people are aware of the president's executive order and that we have a way of tracking the activity of the Bureau."

The BLM doesn't have an office of snowmobiles and off-road vehicles or an office for downhill and cross-country skiing. If it did, a public outcry would be justified. But now, the BLM does have a National Energy Office. And that office is clearly exerting enormous influence in favor of the energy industry.

Charles Levendosky is editorial page editor for Wyoming's Casper Star-Tribune.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Charles Levendosky

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].