Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Oil projects may get less scrutiny

Yahoo! News
Oil projects may get less scrutiny

By Tom Kenworthy, USA TODAYWed May 4, 6:11 AM ET

When a Denver-based energy company proposed to explore and drill for natural gas in an area rich with ancient Indian art panels, the plan kicked off a rigorous environmental review.

The company, Bill Barrett Corp., spent two years and $1 million to comply with the federal law that requires studying what the drilling would do to the environment. The 1969 environmental law also requires consultations with government agencies, Indian tribes and residents before drilling and exploring can begin.

The result: The federal Bureau of Land Management forced changes in the project to protect thousands of rock art and artifacts, as well as wildlife and streams.

"It slowed things down a little bit, so the (Bureau of Land Management) could do it right," says Pam Miller of the College of Eastern Utah's Prehistoric Museum.

But in the future, companies like Barrett that produce oil and gas in the Rocky Mountain West may not have to undergo that kind of environmental analysis.

A section of the energy bill approved by the House of Representatives last month would exempt many federal energy projects from the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act.

If the Senate passes the bill and the president signs it into law, many oil-and-gas projects will no longer be analyzed for their environmental effects or be open to public comment. Some examples:

• Oil and gas wells that disturb less than 5 acres of land. Kermit Witherbee of the Bureau of Land Management says, "Most of our drill pads are less than 5 acres. Our average is less than 3 acres."

As of January, there were more than 63,000 oil and gas wells on federal land, and the Bush administration is accelerating approval for new ones. The energy bill, if it becomes law, will apply to new projects.

• Most seismic explorations, which use sound waves generated by trucks or small underground explosions to find likely pockets of gas and oil.

• New wells added to existing fields that were previously analyzed - a common practice that can double or triple the number of wells in an area.

The bill also would mean no environmental studies of water discharged from wells that coax methane gas from coal seams. These coal bed methane wells often bring large amounts of salty water to the surface, which can damage plants and pastures.

Coal bed methane, a form of natural gas used for heating homes and generating electricity, is rapidly growing in the West, with about 51,000 wells proposed just in one corner of Wyoming.

The change in the environmental law would be welcomed by the energy industry, which has long complained about meeting federal regulations while seeking to increase production of gas and oil.

The legislation "could prove to be a real benefit," Barrett Vice President Duane Zavadil says. He estimates "if not a majority, near a majority" of the company's projects would come under the environment exemptions in the energy bill.

But environmental groups say the legislation would open a loophole that would lead to abuses of public land.

"This is swinging the gate wide open. ... The scope of what it is going to affect is enormous," says Steve Bloch, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a conservation group based in Salt Lake City.

"What you lose ... is the process of addressing potential impacts and the process of letting the public have a voice in what happens," says Sharon Buccino, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.

Just how big the impact would be is uncertain. The Bureau of Land Management, the agency that oversees energy development on federal lands, has made no assessment yet.

"We haven't done a specific inventory," says Witherbee, a senior minerals official in the bureau's Washington headquarters. He says the agency must still comply with other environmental laws, so "it isn't going to have a huge effect."

U.S. Rep. John Peterson (news, bio, voting record), a Pennsylvania Republican who wrote the part of the energy bill allowing the exemptions, says the looser environmental requirement would spur energy production without harming the environment. Reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act often duplicate other studies, he says.

Peterson says the environmental law, passed during the Nixon presidency, is frequently "used to delay projects."

Here in eastern Utah, the law led to changes in the way Barrett drilled and explored for gas - and stronger protections for archaeological sites. "I think there's very little doubt the project would have been different," without the law's requirements, Bloch says.

The project Barrett proposed in 2002 involved land around Nine Mile Canyon, which is actually 40 miles long and includes thousands of Native American artworks carved into rock walls and artifacts. Many sites were used by the Fremont Indians and date back 1,000 years. There are also cabins and other structures built by the Buffalo Soldiers, the 19th-century African-American cavalry who helped explore the West.

Nine Mile Canyon was named last year by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the nation's 11 most endangered places.

As a result of the environmental law, federal land managers ordered changes to the Barrett proposal:

• Gas wells planned for the canyon bottom were eliminated.

• Crews conducting the seismic work had training to avoid archaeological sites.

• Archaeological consultants conducted more surveys covering a larger area.

• Landscape architects were hired to help supervise the upgrading of a gas pipeline within the canyon.

• Extensive consultations were held by the Bureau of Land Management with Indian tribes and other agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, to gauge environmental threats.

With "so many resources out there," says Mark Mackiewicz, who supervised the project for the Bureau of Land Management, "I can't imagine this project without a process like (this)."