Federal judge throws out Obama drilling rules

MEAD GRUVER, Associated Press
                Updated 06:02 p.m., Friday,  August 12, 2011

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A judge on  Friday threw out Obama administration rules that sought to slow down expedited  environmental review of oil and gas drilling on federal land.

U.S. District Judge Nancy  Freudenthal ruled in favor of a petroleum industry group, the Western  Energy Alliance, in its lawsuit against the federal government, including  Interior Secretary Ken  Salazar.

The ruling reinstates Bush-era  expedited oil and gas drilling under provisions called categorical exclusions on  federal lands nationwide, Freudenthal said.

The government argued that oil  and gas companies had no case because they didn’t show how the new rules,  implemented by the U.S.  Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service last year, had created  delays and added to the cost of drilling.

Freudenthal rejected  that argument.

“Western Energy has demonstrated  through its members recognizable injury,” she said. “Those injuries are  supported by the administrative record.”

An attorney for the government  declined to comment but Kathleen  Sgamma, director of government and public affairs for the Denver-based  Western Energy Alliance, praised the ruling.

“She completely discounted the  government’s argument that the harm was speculative,” Sgamma said of  the judge.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005  allows the BLM  and Forest Service to invoke categorical exclusions and skip new  environmental review for drilling permits under certain circumstances.

The circumstances include  instances where companies plan to disturb relatively little ground and  environmental review already has been done for that area. A categorical  exclusion also can be invoked when additional drilling is planned at a well pad  where drilling has occurred within the previous five years.

Categorical exclusions were  widely used throughout the West — especially in the gas boom states of Wyoming,  Utah and New Mexico — until last year.

In Wyoming, the BLM invoked  categorical exclusions for 87 percent of the new gas wells drilled in the Upper  Green River Basin between 2007 and 2010. Those drilling permits added up: Close  to 3,000 over those three years in the basin’s Jonah Field and Pinedale  Anticline gas fields.

The Jonah Field and Pinedale  Anticline ranked fifth and sixth for gas production in the U.S.  in 2009.

Federal land agencies adopted  new rules for interpreting the Energy Policy Act last year in response to an  environmentalist lawsuit over the use of categorical exclusions. The Western  Energy Alliance sued over the new rules last fall.

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