The oil and gas industry’s victory lap
September 12, 2011
On Friday, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Minerals and Energy had a hearing on the job creation effect of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
I remember the Energy Policy Act of 2005 as the controversial legislation negotiated behind closed doors with Halliburton on one side and Vice President Cheney on the other. One of the reasons why many of us felt like that law carried the specter of a sweetheart deal for Vice President Cheney’s former employer is Section 390- the provision describing categorical exclusions (CXs). That is, drilling activities that are exempted from the standard environmental review process.
Just as my boss Lauren predicted, this hearing acted as a victory lap for the Republicans. They were smarting over a court decision striking down a recent Bureau of Land Management (BLM) guidance that instructed field offices to consider things like endangered species, public health, or the cultural and historical importance of our public lands before granting a CX. The industry spokespersons joyfully paraded the studies they commissioned purporting to document the thousands of jobs prevented by burdensome, duplicative, and redundant regulations. One of the industry lobbyists actually argued that because CXs act as a rubber stamp, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials now have more time to perform inspections and monitoring. This issue was addressed in a General Accountability Office (GAO) report that criticized the use of CXs in BLM field offices. It’s true; there are more site inspections. But GAO thinks that’s because BLM has hired 200 more staff to perform them.
The real problem is that while industry thinks in terms of regulations, I think in terms of protections. The public lands managed by BLM are a limited and treasured natural resource. We should not cut corners around an environmental review process established over forty years ago that has served us well. Most of these CXs allow oil and gas companies to get permits for additional drilling as long as an initial environmental review occurred within the last five years. The result is an explosion of additional wells without any consideration of their cumulative impact. It’s not like a site with one well has the same environmental impact as the same site with ten.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ozone levels around Farrington, NM, Pinedale, WY, and Vernal, UT have reached or exceeded allowable levels in part because of the release of nitrogen oxides from the additional wells approved under Section 390. In addition, the drilling of these additional oil and gas wells using CXs has led to a spider-web pattern of development that disrupts migration corridors and critical habitats.
The debate here in Washington, DC will continue to focus on the environment. This hearing was only the beginning. Over the next couple of months, we will repeatedly see the House majority attack our most vital protections as job killers. The Administration already recently backed down from new ozone rules and appears also to be leaning toward developing a new watered down rule on the use of CXs.
I reject this environment versus economy frame. Regulations that force dirty industries to clean up, create a market for cleaner alternatives. When coal companies have to buy scrubbers for their stacks, the money has to go somewhere- it’s not like it suddenly disappears from the economy because there's an out of pocket cost to industry. Similarly, this country is working to create entirely new industries in the clean energy economy. This should be our focus rather than allowing oil and gas companies to undermine the progress our nation has made in protecting our environment.