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Oil Drillers Want Bush-Era Rules Back

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (CN) - Oil and gas drillers claim the Department of Interior made up a regulation that is perverting a law meant to reduce bureaucracy by exempting some permits from environmental review. At issue are interpretations of the law promulgated this year by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, which the Western Energy Alliance claims reversed more favorable 2005 agency interpretations.

The Western Energy Alliance, on behalf of 400 drilling companies, says the "self-created" regulation relating to Section 390 of the Energy Policy Act "turns the statute on its head" by applying environmental controls.

The drillers refer to a settlement agreement in Nine Mile Canyon Coalition v. Steiwig, in which it claims the BLM undid a federal statute "in a private negotiation behind closed doors with three environmental groups in Utah."

The drillers claim the BLM agreed to reinterpret the section of the law on granting drilling permits, changing it to require an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Such review is costly and time-consuming, the drillers say, and subverts the intent of the Energy Policy Act, which it claims is to "streamline the regulatory process," by skipping environmental review for minor projects.

The 2010 interpretation also imposed a new condition, that project areas exhibiting "extraordinary circumstances" be newly subject to environmental review processes.

This "turns the statute on its head" by hinging categorical exclusions on NEPA rather than making them exempt from NEPA, the drillers claim.

Only a fraction of public lands - 470,000 of 700 million acres - are tapped for oil and gas drilling, and vast reserves await, the alliance claims. The association cites the jobs and royalties such drilling brings, the latter allegedly to the tune of $3 billion in 2009.

The group says the new interpretation amounts to a new rule, created without public notice or comment, which is illegally binding for federal employees.

Represented by Mary Throne, it wants the new interpretation reversed.

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