The U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service announced Tuesday proposed changes in regulations to improve the processing of oil and gas drilling applications while protecting surface owners and public land resources.
"The proposed changes reflect the federal government's strong commitment to manage America's public lands for multiple use as intended by Congress," BLM Director Kathleen Clarke said. "These changes are necessary and important to ensure that we protect the rights of surface owners and improve the health and productivity of America's public lands."
"The proposed Onshore Order establishes common procedures for obtaining drilling permits from either the Forest Service or the BLM," said Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth. "This is another example of our 'service first' efforts to improve service to our customers, many of whom operate on both FS and BLM managed lands."
The proposed regulatory changes would revise and update existing regulations in a document known as Onshore Oil and Gas Order Number 1.
The proposed changes will help protect the rights of private surface owners on split-estate lands, where the surface is owned by a non-federal party while the federal government owns the sub-surface minerals.
The changes will ensure that BLM procedures on the development of split-estate minerals are consistently applied and protect the rights of surface owners.
Oil and gas developers will be required to make a good-faith effort to reach an access agreement with surface owners. In cases where an agreement is not reached, developers will be required to obtain a bond that ensures compensation for certain economic losses, as specified by law.
The proposed rule change would also establish a new approval process for multiple oil and gas wells.
This process, called a Master Development Plan, would make it possible for several related drilling permit applications to be considered in a single environmental analysis, resulting in a more efficient review process. The Master Development Plan is also expected to lead to better planning of oil and gas field development, which would help minimize adverse impacts on the land.
In addition, the regulatory proposal would encourage oil and gas operators to use Best Management Practices (BMPs) in developing their drilling permit applications. These environmental practices, which reduce surface or visual impacts from oil and gas development, include such actions as drilling several wells from a single well pad; establishing buffer zones that are needed to protect wildlife habitat; painting structures and machinery to match vegetation colors; burying powerlines or pipelines under or adjacent to access roads; and using technology to monitor well production from a remote location, thus reducing the need for travel to and from the well site.
The proposed regulations would also make clear that the BLM has existing legal authority to require bonding for off-lease facilities that are needed for further development of a lease, such as the "impoundment" ponds in Wyoming that hold water produced from coalbed natural gas development. Such bonding, authorized by a 1987 federal oil and gas law, would fund restoration of any off-lease land or water adversely affected by oil and gas activity that occurs on Federal leases.
The publication of Tuesday's regulatory proposal opened up a 30-day public review and comment period that closes on August 26, 2005.
Comments on the proposed rule change can be sent to: Director (630), Bureau of Land Management, Eastern States Office, 7450 Boston Boulevard, Springfield, Virginia, 22153, Attention: RIN 1004-AD59. Comments may also be hand-delivered to 1620 L Street N.W., Suite 401, Washington, D.C. 20036. Comments may be e-mailed to: Comments_washington@blm.gov (include "Attn: AD59" in the subject line).