Oil And Gas Development:

Increased Permitting Activity Has Lessened BLM's Ability to Meet Its Environmental Protection Responsibilities

GAO-05-418: Published: Jun 17, 2005. Publicly Released: Jul 21, 2005.

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Rising U.S. energy consumption and concerns about dependency on foreign energy sources have prompted the administration to aggressively pursue domestic oil and gas production, including production on public lands, which in turn has generated concern that the impacts of this activity may compromise the use of public land for other purposes. GAO determined (1) the extent to which the level of oil and gas development on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has changed in recent years, and how the change has affected BLM's ability to mitigate impacts; (2) what policy changes related to oil and gas development BLM recently made and how these policies affected BLM's environmental mitigation activities; and (3) what challenges BLM faces in managing its oil and gas program.

BLM's ability to meet its environmental mitigation responsibilities for oil and gas development has been lessened by a dramatic increase in oil and gas operations on federal lands over the past 6 years. Nationwide, the total number of drilling permits approved by BLM more than tripled, from 1,803 in fiscal year 1999 to 6,399 in fiscal year 2004. BLM officials in five out of eight field offices that GAO visited explained that as a result of the increases in drilling permit workloads, staff had to devote increased time to processing drilling permits, leaving less time for mitigation activities, such as environmental inspections and idle-well reviews. BLM made policy revisions over the last 6 years that affected to varying degrees its ability to assess and mitigate the environmental impacts of oil and gas development. The combined effects of these policy changes--some of which were aimed at facilitating and managing increased development, while others were meant to enhance environmental mitigation--were mixed. For example, four of the eight field offices reported that the most significant impact of the policies to expedite and manage oil and gas development was the increased emphasis that some of these policies placed on processing permits, which in turn resulted in shifting staff responsibilities away from mitigation activities. On the other hand, policies to enhance mitigation generally had a positive impact, although increases in the permitting workload have limited their effect. For example, in six field offices, policies for revitalizing BLM's inspection and enforcement program resulted in more inspection staff being hired, although most offices remain understaffed. BLM state and field office staff, and GAO, identified several challenges to managing the agency's oil and gas program, including (1) managing workloads while meeting all of its responsibilities, (2) using workforce planning to effectively identify and communicate its workforce needs, and (3) meeting its oil and gas program resource needs in light of budget constraints. Workload pressure, already high due to increased permitting activity, has been further exacerbated by increased appeals and litigation of BLM decisions and actions, according to BLM staff. In reviewing BLM's efforts to manage increasing workloads, GAO found that some data needed to quantify specific workload activities are either not tracked or not consistently tracked, and that BLM's current workforce planning process does not effectively identify and communicate BLM's staff needs to decision makers. As a result, the process does not provide consistent and readily available information that BLM can use to support budget justifications and make informed resource allocation decisions. BLM is also presented with the challenge of meeting its oil and gas program responsibilities in a period when staffing needs are growing faster than available resources. While BLM has the authority to assess and collect fees for processing oil and gas permits, it has not exercised this authority. BLM has recently taken steps to develop a fee structure for permits.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure that BLM's staffing needs are accurately reflected in its workforce plans and considered by key decision makers, the Secretary of the Interior should direct BLM to ensure that the field offices consistently enter the data on idle-well reviews and reclamation inspections into BLM's centralized database.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO found that BLM field offices were inconsistently entering data on idle well reviews and final reclamation inspections into the agency's centralized database, the Automated Fluid Minerals Support System (AFMSS). This variation precluded senior BLM staff from gathering accurate and comparable data on the idle-well review and final reclamation workloads for each field office. GAO recommended that BLM ensure that its field offices consistently enter data on idle-well reviews and reclamation inspections into AFMSS. In response, BLM issued guidance to the field offices in fiscal year 2006 on documenting idle-well reviews and the associated workload. To standardize data gathered during final reclamation inspections, BLM also developed a new form for recording inspections data. BLM then followed-up to make sure that field offices were entering data as required and found that all field offices were recording data into AFMSS as directed.

    Recommendation: To ensure that BLM's staffing needs are accurately reflected in its workforce plans and considered by key decision makers, the Secretary of the Interior should direct BLM to determine the data necessary to track workloads associated with idle-well reviews and reclamation inspections.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO found that BLM data on idle-well reviews were incomplete and interim reclamation inspections were not tracked at all. To address this concern, GAO recommended that BLM determine the data necessary to track workloads associated with idle-well reviews and interim reclamation inspections. In response, BLM issued guidance to its field offices on how to document idle-well reviews and the associated workloads. BLM also modified its centralized database, the Automated Fluid Minerals Support System, to track interim reclamation inspections and issued guidance to field offices on how to enter data on these inspections.

    Recommendation: To ensure that BLM's staffing needs are accurately reflected in its workforce plans and considered by key decision makers, the Secretary of the Interior should direct BLM to reflect in its workforce plans the staffing levels needed to perform the necessary number of environmental inspections and other mitigationactivities in addition to those positions that the agency expects to be funded.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO found that BLM included only staffing levels that were expected to be funded in their workforce plans, not actual staffing needs. GAO recommended that BLM reflect in its workforce plans staffing levels needed to perform the necessary number of environmental inspections and other activities needed to mitigate the impacts of oil and gas activity. In response, BLM analyzed the staffing levels needed to process the number of drilling permits expected to be received by the seven BLM field offices that account for the vast majority of permits. This analysis was used to identify the number and types of additional positions needed to process the drilling permits and perform the necessary number of environmental inspections and other mitigation activities. Based on this analysis, as of July 2007, more than 100 additional positions have been filled, including 45 additional inspections positions and 27 environmental monitoring positions.

    Recommendation: To generate additional revenues that could potentially help BLM better respond to its increased workload due to the significant increase in oil and gas production on public lands, the Secretary of the Interior should direct BLM to finalize and implement a fee structure to recover BLM's costs for processing applications for drilling permits.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO found that it was unlikely BLM would be able to obtain adequate appropriations to meet all of its needs for administering its oil and gas program and observed that BLM should pursue every opportunity to generate additional revenues that could potentially be used to meet its needs. Given that BLM is not exercising its statutory authority to recover the cost of processing drilling permits, GAO recommended that BLM finalize and implement a fee structure to recover BLM's cost for processing these permits. The fiscal year 2008 Omnibus Appropriations bill which was signed into law by the President on December 26, 2007, requires that BLM charge a $4,000 processing fee for each new oil and gas drilling permit. To carry out this congressional directive BLM has issued interim guidance for its field offices regarding the collection and handling of the new fees. BLM is currently developing final guidance.

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