Bush to let states amend road building ban in forests

The Bush administration Friday announced states will be allowed to modify Clinton administration rules that prevent oil drilling by restricting logging and road building in about one-third of the national forests. Yet the exact manner in which states will be allowed to exercise their authority is still an open-ended question, industry and government officials concede.


Maureen Lorenzetti
OGJ Online

WASHINGTON, DC, May 4 -- The Bush administration Friday announced states will be allowed to modify Clinton administration rules that prevent oil drilling by restricting logging and road building in about one-third of the national forests.

Yet the exact manner in which states will be allowed to exercise their authority is still an open-ended question, industry and government officials concede.

The federal regulations become effective May 12.

In a US Department of Energy-funded study completed last year, researchers from Arlington, Va.-based Advanced Resources International, Inc., said an estimated (mean) 11.3 tcf of natural gas and 550 million bbl of oil could underlie inventoried roadless areas. The vast majority of those resources are in the Rocky Mountain region, where the rule would shut-in an estimated 9.4 tcf (OGJ Online, Apr. 4, 2001).

Agriculture Sec. Ann M. Veneman indicated the Department of Agriculture, through the US Forest Service, plans to propose amendments in early June that will address industry concerns over the regulations. Administration officials note that in those amendments will be more details on how and when local officials will be able to decide when a road may be built that could be used to access energy resources.

Until the picture is clearer, most industry officials that have loudly protested the roadless rule in the past are taking a wait-and-see approach.

It also remains uncertain how the decision will affect pending legal challenges by some Western states. Idaho has challenged the Jan. 12 Roadless Area Conservation rule in federal district court.

The presiding judge withheld ruling on the preliminary injunction and issued an order citing several defects with the process by which the rule was developed, and reserving a ruling pending issuance of the government's status report, due May 4.

That report, to be filed with the court later Friday, will outline the administration's intended actions in the matter, including allowing the current rule to go into effect on May 12, 2001.

States, tribes, and others have filed six lawsuits challenging this rule. The actions announced Friday by Agriculture are aimed at protecting the principles of the rule, correcting data errors, and addressing concerns raised by the court, local communities, tribes, and state governments. For example, the rule designated more than 2.5 million acres of land as roadless that actually have roads.

On Capitol Hill, a key Republican lawmaker praised Bush's decision, saying the president's action to re-examine the roadless rule was a critical step toward saving thousands of existing roads that would be permanently closed by the previous administration's rule.

"The Bush administration made the right call in re-opening the rule making process on the Roadless Area Conservation rule. The previous process was biased and flawed. More than two-thirds of the state and federal elected officials who commented to the previous administration were opposed to this policy," said House Committee on Resources Chairman James Hansen (R-Utah).

"I have no problem with protecting pristine, roadless areas. But some of this land has roads on it -- some of them are as large as interstate highways. These roads are critical to fire prevention and could play a role in future energy development. "

Environmental sources told OGJ Online that allowing states to waive some of the rules ultimately means the federal government will not be able to protect national forests that should be closed to development.

"Today's decision is a paper tiger," said one public land advocate.

Contact Maureen Lorenzetti at maureenl@ogjonline.com

More in Drilling & Production