Watching Government: Field hearings look at NEPA

Aug. 1, 2005
A House Resources Committee task force reviewing the National Environmental Policy Act was to hold the fourth of six field hearings Aug.

House Resources Committee task force reviewing the National Environmental Policy Act was to hold the fourth of six field hearings Aug. 1 in Rio Rancho, NM. Rocky Mountain oil and gas producers were looking forward to it.

John Zent, compliance manager at Burlington Resources Inc.’s San Juan division in Farmington, NM, will testify on behalf of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. NMOGA Pres. Bob Gallagher was helping finalize the written testimony when I telephoned him at the association’s office in Santa Fe.

“We will try to highlight our concerns in the areas where we think NEPA is broken,” he told me. “We think we should do more than just complain, however, so we also plan to have suggestions to fix the problems.”

Gallagher said the testimony also would show the negative impacts of NEPA’s flaws on producers, such as delays during and after the process of issuing drilling permits. These come both from the law itself and from “obstructionist groups that are taking advantage of the law’s loopholes,” he explained.

Regulators testify

The task force has heard already from state oil and gas regulators. Representing the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Victor Carillo said energy-producing states have set high environmental standards.

“But the ever growing, and often Draconian, federal environmental laws and regulations threaten future exploration, production, and refining capacity,” he testified at the task force’s July 23 hearing in Nacogdoches, Tex.

Carillo cited an Environmental Protection Agency stormwater runoff rule that tries to equate oil and gas activity with residential and commercial construction; a proposal within the energy bill to bring hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act; and an array of federal requirements under NEPA and other laws that discourage refinery construction.

In addition to considering opening up areas that are off limits to exploration currently, “We should also seek to streamline [permitting in] areas that are already open to exploration but that are frequently tied up in unnecessarily complicated environmental regulation, particularly on federal lands,” Carillo said.

After the hearings

Rep. Cathy McMorris (R-Wash.), who leads the task force, said the group plans to prepare a report for the committee once the hearings conclude. “It will be recommendations, either for legislation or to the agencies on how NEPA possibly might be improved,” she told me during her return trip to the nation’s capital between the two hearings.

“Some of the themes we’ve heard are concerns about the times it takes to get permits, sometimes up to 20 years. Whether it’s an oil refinery, a power plant, or a discussion of an impact on a forest, it’s a long time to wait. Some of these decisions can be made more quickly,” McMorris said.