Under Trump, U.S. drilling permits on federal lands soar

(Reuters) - The United States approved nearly 40 percent more oil and gas drilling permits on public lands in 2018 than it did the previous year thanks to an automated online system introduced in the waning days of the Obama administration, helping reduce a big backlog of applications.

FILE PHOTO: Pump jacks operate in front of a drilling rig in an oil field in Midland, Texas U.S. August 22, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford/File Photo

President Donald Trump has made it a priority to speed permitting and reduce regulation as a way to boost production of oil, gas and coal from public lands - an agenda that has pleased the energy and mining industries but outraged environmentalists concerned about pollution and climate change.

The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management approved 3,991 drilling permits in fiscal 2018, up from 2,887 in 2017, the agency said, an increase of 38 percent. The average time to process an application to drill with BLM was cut nearly in half to 63 days from 120 days in 2017.

A BLM spokesman, Derrick Henry, attributed the permit approval increase in 2018 to “using increased automation and flexible staffing to make decisions more quickly.”

The numbers were first revealed by Brian Steed, deputy director for policy and programs at BLM, in Congressional testimony earlier this month. BLM said the figures were not yet finalized and could still change.

BLM in 2017 set a goal of eliminating its backlog of permit applications that have been pending for three or more years by October of this year, and in the first nine months of 2018 slashed it by 47 percent from 551 to 288, according to a BLM document reviewed by Reuters.

Under the Obama administration, BLM undertook a major effort to improve its system for processing permits to address long delays and inefficiency. In 2016 it shifted to all electronic filing. Permit approval times were around 200 days prior to the introduction of the new system, according to BLM data.

The Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas industry trade group, said speedier permit approvals were due to both increased automation and a more supportive administration.

“The improvements in automation were started under President Obama, but having an administration which wants to move forward is even more important,” said Kathleen Sgamma, WEA’s president.

Environmentalists say the increased speed has come at the expense of allowing the public to provide input on the drilling applications, which are posted publicly on the permitting web site for 30 days and then removed.

“BLM is cutting corners on environmental reviews of drilling permits by shutting out the public from commenting on those reviews,” said Kelly Fuller, energy and mining campaigns director for Western Watersheds Project.

The group argues that the 30-day posting falls short of the BLM’s obligation to seek public input under federal environmental law.

Reporting by Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici in Washington; Editing by Phil Berlowitz