Oil and Gas Development:

Challenges to Agency Decisions and Opportunities for BLM to Standardize Data Collection

GAO-05-124: Published: Nov 30, 2004. Publicly Released: Jan 3, 2005.

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U.S. consumption of oil and natural gas increasingly outpaces domestic production, a gap that is expected to grow rapidly over the next 20 years. There has been increasing concern about U.S. reliance on foreign energy sources. One option being considered is to increase domestic production of resources on land under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Minerals Management Service (MMS) and the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service. GAO determined (1) the stages when agency decisions about oil and gas development can be challenged by the public, (2) the extent to which BLM gathers and uses public challenge data to manage its oil and gas program, and (3) for fiscal years 1999-2003, the number of MMS offshore development decisions that were challenged.

At the four stages of developing oil and gas resources--planning, exploration, leasing, and operations, BLM, the Forest Service, BIA, and MMS allow for public challenges to agency decisions. However, the agencies have different procedures for processing challenges that occur within the stages. For example, BLM leasing decisions can be challenged to a BLM state director, further appealed to the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA), and litigated in federal court. Forest Service leasing decisions, however, sometimes can be appealed through the Forest Service supervisory chain of command and litigated in federal court. The Forest Service has no separate appeals board within the Department of Agriculture, such as IBLA, to review decisions. In addition, unlike BLM, the Forest Service has specific time frames during which appeals must be decided. BIA procedures offer opportunities for public challenges at the exploration and leasing stages, which are the only stages BIA makes decisions related to oil and gas development. MMS regulations do not provide for appeals at the planning or leasing stages, but do provide for appeals to IBLA during the exploration and operations stages. All MMS decisions could potentially be litigated in federal court. BLM does not systematically gather and use nationwide information on public challenges to manage its oil and gas program. BLM has a system that state offices use to collect data on public challenges during leasing, but the state offices use it inconsistently because they lack clear guidance from headquarters on which data to enter. As a result, the system does not provide consistent information that BLM headquarters can use to assess workload impacts on its state offices and to make staffing and funding resource allocation decisions. Because this system does not track all the public challenge data necessary for managing workload, headquarters and state offices also use multiple, independent data collection systems that are not integrated with one another or BLM's system. BLM is in the process of developing a new system that provides an opportunity to standardize collection of data on public challenges at the leasing stage. However, it has not decided whether the new system will be used to track public challenge information. Between fiscal years 1999 and 2003, MMS was challenged on only one of its 1,631 decisions approving offshore oil and gas development and production and only one of its 1,997 decisions approving offshore oil and gas exploration. Both decisions concerned land on the outer continental shelf off the coast of Alaska and were challenged by Alaskans, a Native American tribe, or an environmental interest group on the basis that the decisions violated the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws. One of the decisions was litigated in federal court and the court decided against the challenges. The other decision was appealed to IBLA but the company discontinued work before a decision was reached.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On February 20, 2007, BLM issued an instruction memorandum to state directors of BLM offices that included guidance on how to incorporate public challenge data in its Legacy Rehost 2000 (LR2000) National Lease Sale System.

    Recommendation: To standardize the collection of public challenge data at the leasing stage for onshore federal lands, the Secretary of the Interior should direct BLM to include public challenge data in the new agencywide automated system for selling leases.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO recommended that BLM take two actions to standardize the collection of public challenges data at the leasing stage for onshore federal lands. These are (1) include public challenge data in the new agencywide automated system for selling leases, and (2) include clear guidance on how public challenge data should be entered into the new system. On February 20, 2007, BLM issued an instruction memorandum that included guidance on how to include public challenge data into its enhanced agencywide automated system for selling leases, called the Legacy Rehost 2000 (LR2000) system.

    Recommendation: To standardize the collection of public challenge data at the leasing stage for onshore federal lands, the Secretary of the Interior should direct BLM to issue clear guidance on how public challenge data should be entered into the new system.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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