Political tension a constant companion to Utah's oil and gas fields
As an example, Stewart and others point to a company's decision to sell its West Tavaputs natural gas field last year in Carbon County as a move made in part because the federal permitting process took too long, and market conditions changed.
"The market flipped, but it didn't help them that it took so long," Stewart said. "The system is slow and bloated and cumbersome."
Still, in 2012, President Barack Obama was boasting of domestic oil production that surpassed an all-time high set in 1998 — reiterating that his "all of the above" energy policy was not unfriendly to fossil fuel extraction.
John Baza, director of the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, said it is easy to use numbers to one's advantage.
"That claim is absolute, but that production is coming from places like Texas and North Dakota that are principally private lands."
Sgamma points out that from 2008 to 2012, federal permits were down overall in the West. In Utah, they dipped 10 percent but state permits jumped from 416 to 1,256.
Kent Hoffman, the deputy state director of the BLM, said the federal review process takes longer than the state because it is more stringent and protective of the environment.
"The state has some pretty good fundamental regulations that they bring to bear in a fairly timely fashion," he said. "We take a lot longer. The sheer complexity of the process takes that long."
That complexity opens the door to challengers of energy development, he added.
"With that complexity comes hundreds if not thousands of opportunities for our detractors, our watchdogs to find opportunities to take us to appeal or to court. We may do 20,999 things correctly in a complicated review, but one 'aw, heck' removes all the 'atta boys.'"
But critics say the arduous process is more about just protecting the environment; it is about implementing an anti-fossil fuel agenda where possible.
"The overlords in Washington are not friendly to extraction in Utah," said Jeff Hartley, an industry lobbyist. "There are no political reasons for them to be, and a lot of political reasons why they would be less than friendly. The reality is that Obama won and he runs the executive branch."
Hartley said if the state were in charge of the resources like oil sands and oil shale, the future would look different for Utah.
"If the efforts of (the Transfer of Public Lands Act) were successful, you would still have these environmental laws that would be applied such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act," he said. "But what you would also have is a state permitting agency that is in the business of acting like a partner as opposed to federal agencies who act like your antagonist who resist giving you a permit."
Steve Bloch, an attorney with the environmental group Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said environmentalists and federal agencies are often the only speed bump on the path of energy development that cares little for environmental protections. He adds that he doesn't see anything wrong with a process that is designed to help the BLM be a methodical caretaker of that environment.
"Could it be faster? Probably. But what would we lose by trying to make it faster?"
He also rejects the notion that the federal oil and gas leasing system needs to be fixed for the betterment of industry.
"There are hundreds of millions of acres that are under lease but not in development and hundreds of drilling permits that the BLM and the state approve on an annual basis that are never acted on. It makes good copy to say that the federal system is broken and the sky is falling," Bloch said.
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