WASHINGTON -- The Interior Department is spending so much time approving permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands that it often fails to do an adequate job policing the environment, congressional investigators say.
Nationwide, oil and gas drilling permits from the department's Bureau of Land Management more than tripled from 1999 to 2004. But as the number of permits rose, from 1,803 to 6,399, BLM officials in five Western field offices protested that staff members had less time for field inspections.
''A dramatic increase in oil and gas development on federal lands over the past six years has lessened BLM's ability to meet its environmental protection responsibilities," officials with the Government Accountability Office, Congress's investigative arm, said in a report obtained yesterday by the Associated Press. The report had not yet been publicly released.
The effects can range from removing several acres of vegetation at a drilling well pad to fragmenting tens of thousands of acres of winter range for mule deer, the report said.
Most of the increased oil and gas exploration has been in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Those five states approved 97 percent of the total permits. In the Buffalo, Wyo., office, 2,151 permits were approved.