WASHINGTON – As part of a continuing commitment to oversee the Bush Administration’s record on environmental protection, Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Tuesday requested close evaluations of two issues involving mining and oil and gas exploration on federal lands. In separate requests to the General Accounting Office, Lieberman asked for status reports on the Administration’s implementation of environmental requirements designed to ensure the protection of the nation’s irreplaceable natural resources and to control environmental clean-up costs borne by taxpayers.
“The Administration’s record on environmental protection has routinely leaned toward industrial profit margins at the expense of our God-given mountains, rivers, and streams,” Lieberman said. “Yet, those responsible for managing publicly-owned lands on which mining and oil and gas drilling occur occupy positions of enormous public trust. I am committed to keeping the public informed about how the Administration is – or is not – protecting that trust.”
Noting that the Administration’s energy policy encourages increased production of oil and gas from public lands, Lieberman asked the GAO to study the Bureau of Land Management’s administration of oil and gas leases to assess its ability both to prevent damage to public resources and to assist in collection of royalty payments that provide the public a fair return from revenue generated from those leases. BLM currently oversees 54,000 leases.
“I understand that due to budget constraints, the BLM is currently able to monitor only a minimal number of oil and gas leases and operations,” Lieberman wrote. “With expected increases in production activity, I am concerned that BLM will not have sufficient resources to manage increased development in a way that adequately protects wildlife, its habitat, and the air and water quality on public lands.”
Lieberman also asked the GAO to study the reliability of financial guarantees provided by companies for the clean up of lands they have mined or drilled. In a report published in 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that mining in the western states had contaminated streams in the headwaters of more than 40 percent of the watersheds in the West, Lieberman said in his letter, and “continuing acid drainage is an important component of such contamination.”
Three Department of Interior Agencies – the BLM, the Office of Surface Mining, and the Minerals Management Service – require surety bonds, cash, or cash equivalents to insure land reclamation and restoration of resources. But mining and oil and gas companies have advocated that DOI accept “corporate guarantees” as an alternative, fearing that insurance companies will impose higher premiums or stricter underwriting criteria in the aftermath of September 11th. Because “corporate guarantees” have posed problems in the past, especially when mining and oil and gas companies declared bankruptcy or shifted assets, Lieberman asked the GAO to study the history of such guarantees and the cost to taxpayers for cleanup, reclamation and restoration of public lands. He also asked for a review of the availability of bonds and why companies may have difficulty obtaining them.