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While fossil fuel production from federal lands and waters has been decreasing overall, oil production from American Indian lands has tripled in recent years. That increase is largely due to hydrofracturing on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, which lays on the oil-rich Bakken shale formation in the upper Midwest, the Energy Information Administration reported last month.
The oil boom has stretched out staff members who handle permitting and inspections of oil and gas wells on federal and tribal land, according to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management.
“Limited budgets in recent years coupled with the high cost of living in regions of increased oil and gas drilling activity have constrained hiring,” the department’s inspector general’s office reported last month. Field offices such as the one near Fort Berthold in Dickinson, N.D., “have a high cost of living that makes it difficult to attract and retain employees,” the report said. “Hiring, training, and retaining personnel have become difficult under these conditions.”
The bureau has taken several steps to overcome the short staffing and expedite permitting. In the past three years, it has cut the time it takes to process permits for well drilling by a third, to less than 200 days, in part by using one-stop permitting shops to coordinate activities among various agencies. But the inspector general identified shortcomings in oversight, accountability and staffing, and urged the bureau to set a deadline for permit processing.
In its 2015 budget request, the department sought flexibility in using money set aside for pilot projects. These accounts, set up under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (PL 109-58), provide money to offices that no longer need it because, the bureau argues, drilling activity has shifted to new regions. Beyond granting permits, the bureau is responsible for inspecting wells and ensuring that companies are paying royalties due to the government and tribes. The bureau has proposed shifting a significant share of the cost of oil and gas inspections to industry through inspection fees that it expects will generate about $48 million.
In order to better oversee the wells and minerals under its jurisdiction, the Government Accountability Office said in May that the bureau needed to update its data management systems, coordinate with state governments and update its rules to reflect technology advancements.