President Donald Trump's efforts to increase U.S. energy production got a boost Thursday from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who pledged to streamline permitting for oil and gas drilling and hold more frequent sales of drilling rights on federal lands.
Zinke signed an order calling for faster and more efficient oil and gas permitting to clear a backlog of federal drilling permits in U.S. Bureau of Land Management offices out West.
"There has to be a process that doesn't over-delay things so we can't get anything done in this country," Zinke said.
Federal law requires permits to be decided upon within 30 days, Zinke said, but the average wait for oil and gas companies has grown to 257 days. Backlogs of oil and gas permits awaiting approval at BLM offices in Casper, Wyoming and Vernal, Utah, have topped 500, according to Interior.
Zinke promised not to sidestep the main law regulating development on federal lands, the National Environmental Policy Act, and said the order won't open up national parks or other major federal holdings to drilling. Yet some regulations stifle the innovation needed to make energy development more environmentally friendly, he said.
"We're going to be a fair and prudent partner, but we're not going to be an adversary to creating wealth and opportunity on some of our public lands," Zinke said.
The order also will require federal oil and gas lease sales be held in each state at least quarterly. Sales toward the end of President Barack Obama's administration in some states occurred somewhat less often even as the government switched to holding the auctions online.
The move could end a lawsuit filed last year by a petroleum industry group, the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, which asserts for times a year is the minimum required by law.
"It gets to the heart of our lawsuit. We are very much open to seeing if it is indeed implemented and settling appropriately," said Kathleen Sgamma, the group's president.
Federal oil and gas leasing policies notwithstanding, oil produced from onshore federal and Indian lands climbed steadily from 98 million barrels in 2007 to 175 million barrels in 2015, according to the federal Office of Natural Resource Revenue.
Production slumped to 157 million barrels last year amid weak oil prices.
Environmentalists criticized Zinke's order as a giveaway to oil and gas interests.
"As much as Zinke talks about valuing our public lands and emulating Teddy Roosevelt, the truth is that he and Donald Trump share the same priority: giving Big Oil free rein on our publicly-owned lands, whatever the cost to our health and our environment," Kelly Martin with the Sierra Club said in a statement.
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