Newly minted Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke just took a massive step towards streamlining the permitting process for oil and gas drilling on federal lands. Wyoming lawmakers love the move, but Democrats fear it’s a dangerous first step down a slippery slope.
Under former President Obama the Interior Department appeared to slow walked permits – leading to a backlog of some 2800 permits, the department claimed earlier this year. Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney said while those numbers are troubling, the Trump administration understands the struggle of corporation’s that want to drill on federal lands in Wyoming and other states.
“We've had a real problem with this backlog of applications for permit to drill. I was really impressed; we had the assistant secretary in front of the Natural Resources Committee about ten days ago, the acting assistant secretary. And she was really, she'd been out to Casper, she understood the problems we were facing in the Casper office. Understood how important it is that we get this moving.”
Zinke’s recent announcement states the Interior Department must answer requests to drill on federal lands within thirty days of receiving the request. That’s a huge win for the industry. Cheney claims that the Obama administration was working quietly behind the scenes to kill the fossil fuel industry.
“It's a combination of things, I think that a lot of it is because sort of the instructions from the previous administration was delay, delay, delay and you had some instances where it was taking nine years from the time of the application being filed to actually being able to start the project.”
The Casper office alone has more than 500 backlogged permit requests, which is partly why Cheney is praising the order.
“And you see that difference economically, what happens is people say, 'You know we're not going to be in Wyoming then if we got to deal with this Federal permitting process, we're going to head north and force out.' And I think it really hurts us economically.”
Democrats from out west and elsewhere are bristling by the move. New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall says it’s misguided.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea. I think they ought to follow the regular process.”
Udall called it an ominous sign from the Trump administration.
“Well, they seem determined to declare a war on public lands so not a good thing I don’t think.”
And Virginia Democrat Don Beyer says the move to open up more federal lands to private drilling is disturbing, though understandable.
“I think its characteristic. I mean the Koch brothers are an immensely important part of the Republican majorities that we have in the House and the Senate. And Trump, part of his electoral message was 'climate change was a hoax by the Chinese and we should double down on fossil fuel.' I think its terrible energy policy.”
Wyoming’s junior senator John Barrasso disagrees – and he says local voters are behind him.
“I support what the Secretary of Interior is doing, I was home traveling the state of Wyoming over the weekend and over the last week. People are very enthusiastic and kind of have a spring in their step in terms of people being hired, energy development, and use of resources that we in Wyoming know are a very important part of our economy.”
Barrasso said the move to expedite permit requests on federal lands also signals a new day for the energy industry.
“President Trump has been very clear, he's saying what the people of Wyoming have been saying for a long time. We need energy security, and I used economic security as a key, but then we talked about energy independence and President Trump is now saying, 'We need energy dominance.' And I believe that. Energy is called the master resource for a reason.”
Conservationists and Democrats alike worry the Trump administration is going down a dangerous path that will turn public land into drilling havens.