As a third generation rancher and former director of the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming, I strongly believe in balanced energy development and the lasting importance of protecting the water, land, and wildlife habitat that is critical to our rural economy and our Western heritage.
Unfortunately, some in the oil and gas industry and in Congress would prefer to take shortcuts, even if they have devastating consequences to the West. Last month, a Wyoming federal district court judge ruled in favor of the industry and struck down -- on a technicality -- one of the oil and gas leasing reforms put in place by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
It was a setback for our land, air, and water, there's no doubt about it. Last year, Sec. Salazar had worked to clean-up business in the Interior Department by ensuring that "categorical exclusions" would not be used to let oil and gas companies take shortcuts when it would significantly affect air and water quality, wildlife, and other valuable resources. These shortcuts were used recklessly under the Bush administration, which sidestepped its own rules for protection in 85 percent of cases involving "categorical exclusions," according to a 2009 Government Accountability Report.
It was also the granting of one these hasty "categorical exclusions" that resulted in the unparalleled disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last summer.
When oil and gas companies were allowed to use these shortcuts on thousands of permits in the West, we saw rapid declines in important wildlife populations and ozone pollution levels jump to unsafe levels.
Chairman of the House Energy & Minerals Subcommittee, Doug Lamborn, had teed-up a victory lap for the oil and gas industry lawsuit when he held a hearing earlier this month, but thankfully there was something for Westerners to cheer about.
The Bureau of Land Management announced at that hearing that it would issue a new rulemaking to put Secretary Salazar's measured reforms of the "categorical exclusion" policy in stone.
Now, there's no guarantee that the same strong policy will emerge at the end of a 1-2 year rulemaking, but whatever does take shape will be much harder for oil and gas companies to attack. What is important about this move is that a stand has been taken for what's in the best interest of the West.
The Salazar reforms have been an important success. The number of protested oil and gas leases has dropped dramatically, creating more certainty for industry, while at the same time helping to protect our air, water, and wildlife resources.
Despite claims by oil and gas companies, the truth is that we can have both more responsible energy development and common sense protections for western lands.
We must build on this success, and I hope an emboldened Interior Department will continue to stand up against the oil and gas industry's effort to avoid responsibility and balanced energy development. Here in Wyoming and throughout the West, we can afford nothing less.