Leaked memo reveals how the Trump administration will fast-track drilling and mining on public lands

Order would turn the Bureau of Land Management into a rubber stamp for the oil industry

Oil and gas production on public land, BLM Wyoming

E&E News this week obtained an internal draft “priority work” list (paywall) for the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that oversees nearly 250 million acres of public land in the West. While Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has repeatedly claimed that BLM is pursuing a “multiple use” policy, it is clear that the administration wants a Bureau of Leasing and Mining, while paying lip service to all other uses, including conservation and recreation.

The five-point plan, which E&E reports has not been circulated to BLM staff, is a roadmap to vastly increase the pace of industrial development on America’s public lands. To support the policy changes, the memo goes to great lengths to spin the BLM’s own data about permitting energy projects. It invents problems that don’t exist in an attempt to fast-track drilling and mining at the expense of clean air and water. The memo uses the word “streamline” seven times without identifying any ways in which BLM’s current processes are problematic.

On the first page alone, the work list promises to:

The first item, a supposed “backlog” of permit applications, is simply a red herring. BLM’s own data show there is no significant backlog of applications, and that the permitting process is held up more by oil and gas company delays than BLM’s processing.

Source: Bureau of Land Management

Between 2005 and 2015 (covering both the Bush and Obama administrations), it took oil and gas companies an average of 133 days to complete their part of the permitting process, while BLM took an average of 88 days to approve a drilling permit.

Those numbers did not change significantly between the Bush and Obama years, except oil and gas companies took an additional 23 days to complete their drilling applications:

Source: Bureau of Land Management

Why do oil and gas companies take so much time with their drilling applications? They’re in no rush.

As the Center for Western Priorities has noted previously, oil and gas companies were sitting on more than 7,500 approved but unused drilling permits as of late 2015, the most recent data available:

Source: Bureau of Land Management

On top of that, oil and gas companies have a stockpile of nearly 20 million acres they have already leased from taxpayers, but have not started to drill on:

Source: Bureau of Land Management

And that stockpile is far more than those companies can use in the foreseeable future. From 2009 through 2015, BLM offered oil and gas companies nearly 29 million acres of public land for drilling. Those companies took leases on less than a quarter of the acres offered, walking away from an area the size of Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and New Jersey combined:

Source: Bureau of Land Management

So what’s Trump up to?

Looking at the numbers, it’s clear that there is no urgent backlog of drilling permits to clear up, and that the oil and gas permitting process does not need to be “streamlined” in any significant way. Rather, the Trump administration is manufacturing excuses to undermine even the most reasonable safeguards for industrial oil and gas development on public lands.

This leaked document shows that the “multiple use” mantra of the Trump administration consists of only two uses: drilling and mining. This is a troubling signal, especially after the administration’s proposed budget made clear that the president intends to cut funding for our parks and public lands, putting many of our iconic places at risk. Going forward, we hope the Bureau of Land Management will see its job as a steward of our public lands in the interests of all Americans for generations to come, not just as a rubber stamp for today’s oil, gas, and mining corporations.