Drilling Frenzy Days Are Over, Says Salazar

Promises to emphasize science over 'categorical exemptions'

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Interior Sec. Ken Salazar stepped up to the microphone this week and told the nation the days of drilling oil and gas everywhere on public lands are over. This is welcome news to Earthjustice attorneys who opposed many of the public lands oil and gas leases ramrodded through by the Bush/Cheney administration.

Salazar made clear that he, unlike his predecessors in the prior administration, understands some public lands, especially in the west, are special and should not be drilled.

Many of the new policies result from an Interior Department review of a 77-parcel Utah lease sale in December 2008. The review came after Earthjustice litigation stopped the sale and forced the cancellation of these leases. Salazar said the department will start requiring more detailed environmental reviews, provide increased opportunities for public input, and reduce a drilling fast track known as categorical exclusions.

Categorical exclusions allowed many oil and gas drilling plans to sail through with little or no environmental review.

In Wyoming, a single federal Bureau of Land Management office granted 1,498 categorical exclusions from 2006 to 2008 – more than any other BLM field office. The part of the state where this oil and gas development subsequently happened saw significant declines in mule deer and sage grouse numbers, as well as increases in air pollution.

From now on BLM must consider extraordinary circumstances, like impacts to species, historic or cultural resources, or human health and safety before categorically excluding oil and gas drilling plans from review.

Earthjustice attorneys have long argued in court cases that the federal government should fully consider other important natural resource values prior to making an irreversible commitment to drill for oil or gas in an area. Sec. Salazar embraced this position as well as new plans to take a site-specific approach to individual lease sales — also welcome news to conservationists.

John was Earthjustice’s Media Director and chief press wrangler from 2001 until 2013. He came to Earthjustice in 2001 to defend freshwaters and public land—and salmon.