Interior Staffing, Budget Signal Shift From Oil and Gas

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President Joe Biden's Interior Department is taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to clearing the way for more wind and solar projects on federal acreage that could see less support staff dedicated to oil and gas permitting. The strategy offers a glimpse into how the administration is viewing access for drilling on federal lands and offshore as Interior prepares to publish its interim findings from a comprehensive review of the federal oil and gas program. The impact for oil and gas projects may be more symbolic than practical, and Interior officials repeatedly emphasized they do not plan to restrict production or permit applications under valid, “existing” leases. But operators have stressed for months that they could face more regulatory obstacles for getting routine authorizations for maintenance and other work, and fewer dedicated staff could exacerbate those concerns (NGW May3'21). In Interior’s recent budget request to Congress, the department outlined plans for siphoning more money toward streamlining federal approvals for renewable projects, especially offshore wind. Interior’s budget includes $348.3 million in discretionary funding for onshore and offshore oil and gas, but roughly $60 million is to go toward new program for oil and gas workers to plug and remediate abandoned wells onshore and decommission offshore infrastructure. Interior's Bureau of Land Management is also proposing roughly $3.4 million in cuts for programs aimed at streamlining oil and gas permitting reviews. Interior's budget indicates that while the department is still reviewing how to address future oil and gas leasing, it will continue to review and approve applications for permits to drill, noting that “roughly 7,000 permits are currently approved but unused.” Currently, producing leases on the Outer Continental Shelf account for about 15% of all domestic oil production and 2% of domestic gas production. Total output on federal lands and offshore is roughly 25% of US oil and 11% of US gas, compared with 1% of wind power and 8% of solar energy, according to Interior data. Offshore Wind In Focus The budget request includes a $23 million increase in funding for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM) renewables programs, to support a ramp-up in offshore wind planning and permitting, along with an additional 25 full-time employees to manage construction and operation plans for wind projects. BOEM has set its sights on completing reviews of at least 16 construction and operating plans by 2025 to support 19 gigawatts of new wind capacity. A spokeswoman for the bureau said that “BOEM will collaborate closely with its federal partners to advance the Biden-Harris administration’s goal of increasing renewable energy development on federal waters.” That approach will include hiring additional staff and utilizing the diverse expertise across the bureau to advance new lease sales and complete reviews of potential projects, the spokeswoman said. Although Congress has yet to act on Interior’s budget request, attorneys tracking the issue say there are a number of strategies Interior is already beginning to implement. The BOEM has already begun the groundwork to shift staffers in its Gulf offices from oil and gas permitting remit to offshore wind, according to one former Interior official tracking the issue. “They can pull people from the Gulf on detail, they can ask for more slots from Congress, they can bring people from other agencies for temporary assignment,” that source said. The idea is that regulatory experience in crafting environmental reviews for offshore oil and gas projects under the National Environmental Policy Act will translate to wind projects in the Gulf, which a 2020 US Department of Energy study estimated could produce up to 10% of US wind power. Bridget DiCosmo, Washington

Offshore Oil and Gas
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