US Agency on Pace to Set Record for Well Drilling Permits

As oil and natural gas prices climb, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is on pace to issue a record number of well drilling permits on public land this year.

The federal agency had issued about 3,500 permits by June 25, a number that is expected to increase to a record 6,000 by the end of the federal fiscal year in September, BLM geologist Richard Watson said Wednesday. Last year, the agency issued about 4,000 permits.

"It's unprecedented in the history of the BLM," he said during an address to a natural gas outlook conference.

The activity comes as the Bush administration pushes to open more environmentally sensitive public lands for oil and gas development.

After his speech, Watson said the permit demand is due almost entirely to oil and gas prices. "What the administration has been pushing is improving the process," he said.

Environmentalists have questioned the need for the rapid pace at which the government is issuing oil and gas development leases, saying that chunks of acreage already leased have yet to be developed.

Wilderness Society officials contend the Bush administration is trying to give industry more control over public land. "It appears to us they're trying to get as much land under lease now while they can," society spokesman Bill Beagle said.

Three years ago, the Energy Task Force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney asked the BLM to find ways to open new federal lands to oil and gas leasing and to speed up the approval of drilling permits.

To speed up the process, Watson said the agency is encouraging operators to submit multiple applications at once and is working to ensure consistent practices from state to state. He also said employees have been added incrementally to help out as the budget allows.

The North American Natural Gas Market Outlook conference, sponsored by Electric Utility Consultants Inc., continues Thursday in Denver.