Western Wire

The Interior Department is not finished streamlining permitting operations or reviewing and rescinding onerous policies under the Trump administration’s guidance, a senior department official told a Denver audience today.

Joe Balash, Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management at the Department of the Interior (DOI), said that the goals set out by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in his first year are still being aggressively pursued, including reorganization of the department’s several bureaus, making the permitting process more responsive and efficient, and possibly relocating portions of the Bureau of Land Management to the West.

The top Interior Department official was speaking at the Colorado Mining Association’s 120th National Western Mining Association conference in Denver, Colo.

“At the Department of the Interior we are looking forward to working with you in the future as we take on challenges for the benefit of the American public. Our approach has included a combination of rule rescissions, review of existing policy, and promulgation of new policy or guidance, all of which aim to reduce unnecessary burdens on those developing our mineral estate on public lands,” Balash said in his opening remarks.

“It’s important to note, however, that we are not done yet,” he continued. Balash was confirmed in December 2017.

“Allowing Americans to benefit from safe, environmentally responsible development on federal lands puts America on track for energy independence,” Balash said.

Balash oversees all of the department’s federal lands and waters, and their associated mineral and non-mineral resources, including the regulation of surface coal mining, according to DOI.

“We are seeking to be a partner in progress,” Balash said. He said that begins with making America not reliant on obtaining critical minerals and materials from abroad.

“We’re working to get it right, by empowering our employees in the field, or as our secretary likes to say, ‘on the front lines,’” ensuring they have the resources and discretion to make the informed and sustainable decisions.

Balash said Zinke’s priorities include sustainably developing America’s natural resources; restoring trust between the federal government and adjacent landowners, both public and private; striking a regulatory balance that allows for responsible development and healthy environment; and create a conservation stewardship ethic,”

Balash said the Trump administration believes in the “resurgence” in mining of all types, including critical minerals that important because of their strategic and national security significance.

“In December the USGS [United States Geological Service] released a report indicating that our nation was 100 percent net import reliant on more than 20 mineral commodities in 2016. These minerals are used in manufacturing everything from lead batteries and computer chips, to equipment for our military,”

Among those minerals listed by USGS as “wholly dependent on imports” are graphite, manganese, niobium, and tantalum. Niobium and tantalum, for example, are used to make high-strength steel alloys commonly found in pipelines and transportation infrastructure. According to USGS, they are also used in the defense, energy, and medical sectors.

“By identifying and, where appropriate, eliminating obstacles, we’ve begun a course to reduce barriers to energy resources on public lands, to review and streamline our leasing and permitting processes, and improve coordination between stakeholders including state, tribal, and local governments as well as other federal agencies,” Balash outlined.

“It’s going to take a lot more than just opening up more acres,” Balash continued.

He pointed to applications for permits to drill (APD) in New Mexico that started out 2017 at 256 days, on average, to be processed. Balash compared that figure to state regulators who could approve permits on state or private land in just 10 days.

“You can imagine somebody who has money to invest is going to choose the private or state land, when it comes to selecting a place to drill,” Balash said.

Among Zinke’s top priorities for BLM has been to streamline the permitting process to a more reasonable time frame, and hold mandated quarterly lease sales on the agency’s multiple-use lands.

Balash said that the average APD time is now around 90 days, with a goal of 30 days for permitting.

“We need to do things like that to trigger the investment decision to be made on federal acreage,” Balash said.

BLM’s first quarterly lease sale in 2018 drew more than $21 million in competitive bids, led by Wyoming’s take of more than $19.6 million. Nearly $350 million in lease sales occurred in 2017, with revenues split almost evenly between the states and the federal government.

But the development and sustainability of the federal lands under his guidance is not limited to mineral development.

“When the president, the secretary, and myself talk about management of our natural resource wealth, we’re not just talking about the energy and minerals below the ground. The vast habitats and wildlife populations present here in the U.S., especially in the West, are an asset that the American people have that’s not enjoyed in very many other places,” Balash said.

Balash said DOI and BLM have also focused on enhancing conservation stewardship by recruiting new sports and outdoor recreation enthusiasts from all walks of American life.

“Colorado and the Rocky Mountains are a destination for many, including those who enjoy and participate in the vast open spaces and beauty of the great outdoors here,” he said.

According to Balash, “The hunters and fishermen and women of America are the backbone of land and wildlife conservation.”

As for a possible BLM headquarters relocation, Balash said it’s just a part of the overall reorganization, and that Western governors have provided feedback on the DOI’s boundary proposals.

“Reorganization gets a lot of attention,” Balash said. The focus this year, he said, was on the department’s common regional boundaries proposal for all the bureaus.

“Each of our bureaus has a different set of organizational boundaries between the field, state, and headquarters office,” Balash said. It’s important to align those offices to utilize shared services between agencies, Balash continued, and begin to move more support staff into the field where the decisions that are made have an impact.

“The secretary feels very strongly about making sure the people who are involved in making decisions on what happens on public lands really get to see firsthand and experience the consequences of that,” Balash said. “There’s no better way to do that than getting out into the parts of the country where public lands are.”

Balash admitted that interest remains in a possible “HQ2” in Grand Junction, Colo., but some plans he has seen include a more modest initial move of perhaps fifty employees to start.

In March, Colorado’s U.S. Senators Cory Gardner (R) and Michael Bennet (D) invited Zinke to visit Grand Junction as one of the possible sites for relocation.

“We believe Grand Junction is the ideal location for the BLM headquarters. Grand Junction is centrally located and offers easy access to a major interstate and an expanding airport, and has existing federal facilities and infrastructure,” Gardner and Bennet wrote.

Zinke, testifying before the House Natural Resources Committee on his department’s FY 2019 budget, when asked about Colorado and the city of Grand Junction specifically, said he was looking for affordability and quality of life as top priorities for a relocated headquarters.

“My concern is making sure we go to a community that is high quality of life, that is affordable for the GS-5/GS-7, great communities that we can compete for millennials who will want to be there. Colorado certainly fits that description,” Zinke said.

Balash said that ultimately what shape and when a move would occur was unclear, and that the department’s immediate priority was moving forward on the bureau regional boundary alignment, which he expected by the end of summer.