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Congressional drilling probe headed to Wyoming

The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

LANDER, Wyo. ” A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming said the agency welcomes a review by congressional investigators of the agency’s fast-track approvals for some oil and gas drilling permits.

Government Accountability Office investigators have opened an investigation into the BLM’s use of “categorical exclusions,” a practice authorized by the 2005 Energy Act that allows the approval of some drilling projects without a full environmental study of the consequences.

The Bush administration and Congress intended to speed up energy production by giving regulatory agencies the authority to bypass environmental studies if there was already production in the area and if a previous environmental analysis was conducted in the area in the past five years.

Environmentalists have opposed the practice, saying it has allowed drilling to take place without adequate review. Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal has also criticized the fast-tracking of permits.

“Categorical exclusions remain a significant issue for the state with regard to the adequate protection and management of state resources on federal lands,” Freudenthal wrote this week in a letter to a BLM official in Buffalo. “The potential for significant detrimental impacts on air quality, wildlife, and other resources without a single opportunity for full impact analysis at any level creates the potential for unacceptable results.”

The BLM said 1,632 drilling permits were issued under categorical exclusions in Wyoming between August 2005 and September 2007. Those include 788 permits in the Pinedale field office and 353 in the Buffalo field office. Categorical exclusions have also been used in Utah, where GAO investigators were this week, and in New Mexico.

Officials at the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, have said their review was prompted by a request from the House Natural Resources Committee and its Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

GAO Assistant Director Jeff Malcolm said his office sent people to Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon this week and tentatively plans to send investigators to Wyoming by the end of the month.

BLM spokeswoman Theresa Howes declined to comment on any specific reasons for the GAO review, but she said GAO audits are not uncommon for the federal government.

“We look forward to working with the review team when they visit Wyoming,” she said.

Nada Culver, a spokeswoman for the Wilderness Society, said the review is overdue.

“Congress passed these exclusions, now Congress is investigating what the heck they’re doing with them,” she said.


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