Government shutdown would stop some oil permitting

Oil and gas companies working to secure drilling permits on federal lands may have just a few more hours to get the job done.

The Bureau of Land Management will halt permitting oil and gas projects on public lands if lawmakers do not reach a deal to continue funding the federal government by Tuesday. Offshore oil and gas permitting, which is handled by a separate agency, would continue.

Under a government shutdown, a number of energy-related programs would indefinitely cease, although some federal workers would stay on the job to continue inspecting oil and gas facilities and other activities deemed absolutely essential.

Here are some of the activities that would stop, according to contingency plans outlined by federal departments and agencies:

  • Testing of oil spill response equipment at a government facility in New Jersey
  • Processing high bids for offshore oil and gas drilling rights sold during the western Gulf lease sale in August. According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, “this will likely delay both the issuance of leases and the associated payments to the Department of Treasury that occur upon execution of the lease.”
  • Evaluation of new oil and gas exploration, production and development plans offshore
  • Processing onshore oil and gas lease sales ad permits

“This is a contingency plan that we hope won’t happen,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a video message to the department’s employees.

Government officials stressed that work tied to the safety of life and protection of the environment would continue. As a result, even if the government shuts down, inspectors will continue visiting oil and gas facilities offshore and onshore, both for routine reviews and emergency inspections. If there were a major oil spill, “employees will be available for activation to handle the event,” the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement also will continue processing applications for offshore permits, including requests to modify existing plans.

“The permitting and enforcement activities that continue would allow industry to function during a government shutdown,” the agency said. “Drilling and production safety (oversight) is critical to the conduct of safe drilling operations by industry.”

The Interior Department said the discrepancy in the permitting of offshore and onshore oil and gas wells is tied to different agency’s funding streams. While the Bureau of Land Management that deals with onshore wells is mostly reliant on money appropriated by Congress, much of the offshore safety bureau’s funding is tied to revenue that streams in from industry fees and rental payments.

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All told, about 369 safety bureau employees and 477 ocean energy bureau workers would be furloughed. About 10,200 Bureau of Land Management employees and 10,000 Energy Department employees also would be sent home during a lapse in funding.

In Jewell’s video message to Interior Department employees — described by one viewer as “the best ‘sorry, might have to furlough you’ video ever” — the secretary stressed that the furloughs and funding decisions on Capitol Hill have no bearing on the workers’ importance.

“I very much value your work. And the American people value your work,” Jewell said. “Whether you’re asked to come in or you’re asked to be furloughed, it has no bearing whatsoever on your value to the Department of the Interior. All of your jobs are valuable. But when our appropriations are cut, we must scale our resources to the minimum possible level.”