WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has met with a slew of oil and gas executives since taking over the federal agency, signed an order Thursday to expand fossil fuel production on federal lands.
The secretarial order seeks to ramp up America’s onshore energy production by holding quarterly lease sales and reducing the time the Bureau of Land Management takes to issue permits for oil and gas drilling. It is the latest development in the Trump administration’s push for “energy dominance.”
In a call Thursday with reporters, Zinke said that upon reviewing current regulatory processes, “it became evident that some of them are punitive and don’t allow industry to be innovative.”
“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,” he said.
Today, some 27 million of the roughly 700 million sub-surface acres managed by BLM are under lease, Zinke said. In fiscal 2017, the bureau took an average of 257 days to issue or deny lease permits. By statute, however, BLM is required to complete permitting reviews within 30 days of a sale. As of January 31, BLM had a backlog of 2,802 drilling permit applications, according to a Department of Interior release.
Thursday’s order tasks Interior with meeting the required 30-day time frame, although Zinke acknowledged it’s “not going to be done overnight.” He added that while it’s important the permitting process ensures environmental protection, “there has to be a process that doesn’t over-delay things so we can’t get anything done in this country.”
The order does not open up any national parks or national forest lands for drilling, Zinke said.
The announcement was welcomed by the American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas industry trade group.
“A key component of a successful policy is repairing the federal permitting process so that companies have the confidence to invest and see their projects move forward,” API’s Erik Milito said in a statement.
Conservationists, however, see it as the latest example of the Trump administration catering to industry. Nada Culver, senior director of agency policy and planning at the Wilderness Society, said the order “offers a solution in search of a problem.”
“The oil and gas industry has been sitting on thousands of approved permits on their millions of acres of leased land for years now,” Culver said in a statement. “The real problem here is this Administration’s obsession with selling out more of our public lands to the oil and gas industry at the expense of the American people.”
Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said Zinke and President Donald Trump are “trying to fast-track the climate disaster and destroy America’s public lands in the process.”
Zinke has repeatedly stressed that when it comes to powering America, he and his boss “don’t pick winners and losers.” But Zinke’s actions, schedule and social media presence since assuming his new post indicate a clear favoritism for oil, gas and coal.
In March, one day after Trump signed an executive order rolling back Obama-era policies aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, Zinke signed a pair of secretarial orders “to advance American energy independence.” One of those orders overturned an Obama-era moratorium on new coal leases on federal land.
Under Zinke’s command, the Interior Department has also moved to scrap a hydraulic-fracturing rule meant to better protect public health, and is working to rewrite a rule limiting the amount of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, that can be released from oil and gas operations on federal land. On May 31, Zinke signed a secretarial order to “jump-start” oil production in Alaska, including in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge.