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House Republicans Push For Bush-Era ‘Categorical Exclusion’ Drilling Policies That Avoid Environmental Reviews

By Tom Kenworthy, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress Action Fund

To the short list — death and taxes — of things that are certain, add a third: House Republicans whining a duet with the oil and gas industry about complying with the nation’s bedrock environmental laws.

The latest example came today during a hearing before a subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee to examine the arcane subject of allowing the energy industry to employ so-called “categorical exclusions” to dodge thorough environmental reviews of drilling projects on federal lands. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) pushed back on the oil and gas industry claims:

The BP oil spill disaster proved that allowing companies to take shortcuts is a bad idea. It’s unfortunate that some continue to attempt an end-run around the law and protections for Colorado’s water, air, and public lands. We need reasonable, common-sense solutions that allow for balanced energy development, and I commend Sec. Ken Salazar for his diligent work to ensure responsible energy policy in the West.

The authority for drilling projects to bypass environmental assessments and more rigorous environmental impact statements under the National Environmental Policy Act was pushed by the administration of George W. Bush and endorsed by Congress in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. As with most things involving energy development on public lands, Bush’s Interior Department proceeded to go hog wild.

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A 2009 investigation of how the authority was (mis)used by the Government Accountability Office found widespread abuses and illegalities in the way the authority was applied. Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, which oversees mineral development on federal lands, gave the industry exclusions in 28 percent of drilling permit applications from fiscal 2006 to 2008, the GAO found. And it did so in ways that were frequently “out of compliance with both the law and BLM’s guidance,” the report said.

Following up on that damning report, the Obama administration’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar put a halt to the reckless fast-tracking in 2010 by issuing new guidance to the BLM that limited the use of the broad exemptions. Last month, on procedural grounds, a federal judge in Wyoming ruled that Salazar’s guidelines were illegally implemented. At today’s hearing, BLM’s deputy director Mike Poole announced that the agency would conduct a new rulemaking to comply with the judge’s decision.

But for the “drill, baby, drill” crowd, that’s not good enough. They want the Bush-era party to resume.

The liberal use of categorical exclusions, said energy and mineral resources subcommittee chairman Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), “are an essential part of streamlining an overly burdensome and bureaucratic process.”

Somehow Lamborn and his allies never got around to mentioning that even with those burdens in place, onshore oil and gas drilling is near a 20-year high, total U.S. crude oil production is the highest it has been since 2003, and the industry is sitting on thousands of unused drilling permits and leases covering nearly 30 million acres that have yet to be developed.