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The Obama administration on Tuesday unveiled new procedures to speed up drilling on public lands, an area where Republicans and the oil industry have pressed the administration to do more to boost oil production and help drive down gasoline prices.
The changes will move the Bureau of Land Management, the agency responsible for oil and gas production on federal onshore lands, into the digital age by automating permitting and leasing decisions. Today, those negotiations are done on paper, and the back-and-forth has resulted in permits taking on average 298 days to approve.
Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey said that the new process unveiled Tuesday and in place nationwide by May 2013 would drop it to 60 days or less, without compromising safety or the environment.
"We have heard from the industry that they believe that BLM's administrative processes are too slow and result in unnecessary delay and added costs," Abbey said in a conference call with reporters. "And to some degree, their criticism is valid."
The announcement comes as Republican presidential contenders and the oil industry are attacking the administration for policies they claim have diminished oil and gas production on public property -- and contributed to high prices at the pump. North Dakota, where Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made the announcement on Tuesday, has played prominently in their attacks because the state is in the midst of an oil shale drilling boom, most of which is occurring on private property outside of the federal government's control.
"The president has made it clear to us that he wants us to continue to produce oil and natural gas here at home," Abbey said. "While this alone is not a solution to high oil and gas prices, it will help reduce reliance on foreign oil and our vulnerability to up and down swings of the international market."
Data released by the Energy Information Administration in March shows that crude oil production on public lands onshore was at its highest level since 2003.
By contrast, natural gas production on federal property was at its lowest point since 2008, but higher than any year from 2003-2007.
The drilling boom under way in North Dakota's oil shale has helped drive the country to an eight-year high in oil production, a statistic President Barack Obama has used repeatedly on the campaign trail, and used in a new energy ad released Tuesday. But most of the drilling there is on private land.
The explosion of oil wells on the Fort Berthold Native American tribal reservation, where Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was concluding a two-day trip to North Dakota on Tuesday, came after a 2008 tax agreement with the state divided the royalties and after the Interior Department streamlined the permitting rules on the reservation from a 49-step process to a single, one-stop shop. Compared to three years ago, when one well was producing, there are now 245 in operation, a trend Salazar said put Fort Berthold "in the bull's-eye of this energy boom which we have created."
Outside the reservation, however, only one rig out of the 208 drilling in North Dakota on Tuesday sits on non-tribal federal property.
When pressed about that statistic, Salazar said the non-tribal federal acreage in North Dakota "is relatively small", compared to other Western states.
Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, which represents more than 200 companies working in the state, said the permitting process on federal land is overly burdensome and agencies are understaffed at present to deal with the rise in oil production in North Dakota and elsewhere.
Ness said streamlining the permit process on federal land is welcome, "but proof is in the pudding."
The American Petroleum Institute and Republican critics also expressed cautious optimism Tuesday, but again called for the administration to open up more areas to drilling and to simplify environmental reviews.
"Better government efficiency is certainly positive," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. "But the real problem over the past three years of the Obama administration isn't slow computers but policies that punish and discourage American-made energy on public lands."
Associated Press writer James MacPherson contributed to this report from Bismarck, North Dakota.
Follow Dina Cappiello's environment coverage on Twitter (at)dinacappiello