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The Associated Press May 18, 2010, 11:51AM ET

Environmentalists welcome oil, gas leasing reforms

Several environmental groups in Colorado and Wyoming are praising the Interior Department's onshore oil and gas leasing reforms as long overdue.

The announcement Monday comes as the federal agency deals with questions about regulation of offshore drilling in the wake of the Gulf Coast oil spill.

Environmentalists in the Rockies criticized the Bureau of Land Management under the Bush administration for what they say was a rush to lease public lands in the region during the recent natural gas boom. Mike Chiropolos of the Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates calls the reforms "an injection of good government where it has been sorely lacking."

Among the reforms announced by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was the requirement that the public be involved before land is leased in certain areas. Expedited approval of leases called "categorical exclusions" will also be tightened, Salazar said. That process allows for speedier approval of oil and gas leases without the normally detailed environmental reviews.

"The old way of oil and gas leasing was 'lease before you look,' and the result was the destruction of millions of acres of prime wildlife habitat across the American West and heavy impacts to treasured landscapes," said Erik Molvar of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Wyoming.

Not all environmental groups were impressed by the proposed changes. Jeremy Nichols of the Denver office of WildEarth Guardians said Salazar, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, is "still allowing the fox to guard the henhouse at the Bureau of Land Management." Nichols said the BLM, which manages 253 million acres nationwide, is under pressure to give priority to extracting oil and gas from public lands.

An industry group panned the changes for different reasons. The Denver-based Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States said the changes will further delay development of clean-burning natural gas, costing the country jobs and hobbling its ability to reduce reliance on foreign energy.

"These policy changes were formalized with no input from the hundreds of thousands of hardworking men and women whose livelihoods are tied to energy development on Western federal lands," said Kathleen Sgamma, the group's director of government affairs.

Industry groups have complained that the Obama administration has greatly slowed energy development in the West.

Environmental groups, however, have countered that a drop in natural gas prices and the recession have more to do with the decline in drilling than federal policies.

"The (Interior) policy on oil and gas leasing issued today is an important and long-needed step to balance key needs of Colorado's wildlife before offering BLM lands for lease sales," said Suzanne O'Neill of the Colorado Wildlife Federation.

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