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Bureau of Land Mismanagement

Hiring industry consultants is a bad way to process drilling applications

Los Angeles Times

A captive regulator is one that has so thoroughly internalized the priorities of the industry it is supposed to be regulating that it acts more like a lobbyist than a watchdog. The Bureau of Land Management has managed to give this venerable Washington tradition a new twist: instead of merely acceding to industry's wishes, it has hired industry consultants.

The BLM is facing a severe backlog in processing applications for oil and gas drilling, which have more than tripled to nearly 6,400 in the last five years. This year, the office in Vernal, Utah, the agency's second-busiest, allowed an oil and gas industry group to donate some experts to help review projects. The result was predictable: A report that was favorable to industry. After environmentalists and other federal agencies protested, the BLM had to withdraw it.

Chronic understaffing is a problem at the BLM. But the response should not be to ask consultants from the National Foxes Association to help design a henhouse management plan. The BLM should have funds adequate to protect the public interest.

The BLM justifies the obvious conflict of interest by saying it takes steps to avoid ethical problems, including having the staff review the consultants' work. A 1976 law allows the Interior Department to accept donations of money, services and property. But the department needs to set down clearer rules for office managers who lack elementary ethics training.

Some financial help will come from the recently signed energy legislation. A provision pushed by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, will give Western BLM offices some of the money raised by industry land leases. But it won't be enough, and it's not new money; it will be diverted from other government functions.

The most practical solution would be to raise the permit fees for the oil and gas industries. The industry then could pay to solve its problem and the BLM or other agencies could hire their own staff members, who would understand that they are paid to protect the public good, not corporate profits.

The Interior Department this year proposed doing precisely that, but the proposal was effectively killed by another amendment in the federal energy measure. The amendment's sponsor? Hatch, arguing that any fee increases would be a hurdle to obtaining gas from our public lands. That's unlikely, considering the industry finds it cheap enough to hire consultants to do the BLM's job.