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As BLM Expedites Oil And Gas Drilling Permits, Many Go Unused, Watchdog Finds

An image of a single oil derrick situated in the open spaces and mountains of Utah.
Bureau of Land Management

A federal report out this week shows that the Bureau of Land Management has more than halved the time spent reviewing oil and gas drilling permits, a reflection of how the agency's priorities have shifted under the Trump administration.

The Government Accountability Office, an independent federal government watchdog, found that between May 2016 and June 2019, the BLM cut the average time it spent reviewing oil and gas drilling applications from 196 days to 94 days.

Frank Rusco, a director of the GAO's Natural Resources and Environment team and the report's author, said the numbers suggest, in part, that the BLM is becoming more efficient.

“But on the other hand, they’ve also focused more on [drilling permits], so they’ve pulled people who might have been doing inspections of ongoing drilling operations, for example, and they’ve pulled them to work on approving applications for permits to drill,” Rusco said.

Rusco said this could mean environmental reviews have been rushed to favor industry.

According to the report, less than 5% of the 23,706 applications BLM received between 2014 and 2019 have not been approved. And nearly half of the approved permits are not in use – a finding that suggests the BLM's prioritization of oil and gas permits is unnecessary.

“Forcing federal employees to drop what they’re doing to grant more oil and gas drilling permits that won’t even be used is a perfect example of everything wrong with this administration,” House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, whose request prompted the GAO inquiry, said in a statement.

Image showing locations of all the BLM field offices, using dots to show where they are located.
Credit Government Accountability Office
A map showing the various BLM field offices throughout the United States. The table below shows the number of applications for drilling permits from each field office.

The report recommends that the BLM institute a formal process for prioritizing permits at the field office level, in addition to more efficiently documenting and responding to technical issues in data collection.

“And that is probably more important than anything else,” Rusco said. “They can get better data, they can see more clearly what they need to do to be better managers of federal lands. And then we’ll all get a better outcome.”

You can read the full report here.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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Noah Glick is a former content director and host at KUNR Public Radio.
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