The Department of Interior’s (DOI) effort to overhaul public land drilling was setback when the court sided with the Western Energy Alliance (WEA) in a suit against the limited use of categorical exclusions to expedite onshore drilling. According to The Hill, WEA “alleged the policy ran afoul of a 2005 energy law that required the exemptions.”

The limited use of categorical exclusions was meant to insure fewer permits came under litigation from environmental groups, thereby delaying the approval process for Big Oil. In fact, the reforms were protecting the permits from unnecessary protests. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reports there are fewer protests today compared to the past six years.

The court’s decision means Bureau of Land Management (BLM) cannot rely on its 2010 guidance, but it does not require BLM to return to a practice of endangering our natural and cultural resources to permit drilling without any common sense limitations.

While WEA may praise the court decision – they have set the industry up for more time spent in court rather than drilling. The categorical exclusion program continues to be misapplied and out of compliance with BLM policy.

In a 2009 report on the use of categorical exclusions, Government Accountability Office (GAO) “found numerous examples—in 85 percent of the field offices sampled—where officials did not correctly follow guidance, most often by failing to adequately justify the use of a categorical exclusion.”

Between 2006 and 2008, the BLM permitted more than 6,100 permits to drill – 28% of the total handled by BLM – were issued using categorical exclusions, according to a GAO analysis.

Even the Western Governor’s Association (WGA), which at the time included Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, was concerned about the use of exclusions in the permitting process.  In 2007, WGA passed a resolution calling for Congress to prohibit the use of categorical exclusions to permit oil and gas projects in wildlife migration corridors and crucial habitat. The resolution was meant to thwart the same energy laws WEA sited in its suit.