Environmental impact statement set to delay all auctions until 2012

NEW ORLEANS, La. – The Interior Department’s “public scoping” meeting, on the environmental impact of oil and gas leases, provided little hope for potential lessees. Tuesday’s opportunity for public submissions also failed to attract a crowd – approximately twenty individuals attended – but those that spoke emphasized the high stakes at play and the need for an expedited process.

Members of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement began their three-state Gulf tour in New Orleans, hearing concerns over what they ought to consider in their “supplemental environmental impact statement.” In their own opening statement they clarified that they were reconsidering the impact of more than 29,000 leases of nine-square-mile sections in the Western and Central planning areas of the Gulf of Mexico (pictured below). They also gave a timeline which suggested there will be no lease sales until May of 2012.

The consensus of those who gave oral submissions was that any impact statement need not be exorbitant. BOEMRE’s own speaker concurred and noted that an SEIS needs to be sufficient for an “informed decision” and should not be “encyclopedic.”

“A time-consuming supplemental environmental impact statement could hurt energy production, job creation, and revenue generation,” said Holly Hopkins of the American Petroleum Institute, who flew in from Washington, D.C. She also noted that the federal government would also lose out on its annual $2 billion revenue stream from Gulf lease sales.

However, that view did not appear likely to translate into a speedier SEIS process, which includes a draft in May of next year and then three opportunities for public comment before publication in December of 2011.

Toby Roesler, a New Orleans-based geophysicist, wanted BOEMRE representatives to confirm that the SEIS timeline meant an end of all lease sales until 2012. 2011 would then be the first year since 1965 without at least one lease sale. However, Caryl Fagot, the BOEMRE public affairs specialist, said she “can’t answer that,” and that such a response was not within the confines of the event.

Roesler also shared that, in his view, a more-than-year-long process is altogether unnecessary. “We’ve been drilling offshore of the Gulf of Mexico for the last 60 years. We already know what the environmental impact is.”

Regardless of the time involved, though, Kent Satterlee, of Shell Exploration and Production Company, believes that the SEIS can continue alongside lease sales.

“The government does not have to wait until the finalized SEIS to hold lease sales… [The National Environmental Policy Act] says that you have to use available information. There’s already an abundance of environmental reviews and NEPA reviews that have been done for the Gulf of Mexico.”

With this flexibility in mind, Hopkins supports a continuation of all lease sales as soon as possible, “with no reduction in the acreage traditionally offered.”

After a stop in Houston on Wednesday, the BOEMRE team finished up in Mobile Alabama on Thursday. The next step in the process is the draft SEIS in May, 2011. Until December 27, 2010, concerned individuals may still make mail or e-mail submissions:

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, Regional Supervisor, Leasing and Environment (MS 5410), Gulf of Mexico OCS Region, 1201 Elmwood Park Boulevard, New Orleans, Louisiana 70123-2394. (gomrseis@boemre.gov)

Fergus Hodgson is the capitol bureau reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be contacted at fhodgson@pelicanpolicy.org, and one can follow him on twitter.