FARMINGTON — A bill co-sponsored by a New Mexico lawmaker would extend funding for a Bureau of Land Management pilot program intended to speed up the permitting process. It also would permanently reauthorize the Permit Processing Improvement Fund.
The money would help increase permitting capabilities in the bureau's New Mexico field offices. The permits have been in high demand by companies wanting to explore for oil in the San Juan and Permian Basins.
"The BLM offices in Farmington and Carlsbad are among the busiest in the country, and thanks to this pilot program they have become more efficient and effective," New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall said in a press release when the bill was introduced in June.
Udall co-sponsored the bill with Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming.
The Permit Processing Improvement Fund provides about $18 million each year for pilot offices, and helps BLM with mineral leasing permits and wildlife and range conservation.
The bill also is intended to help BLM offices in other states that are experiencing the same difficulties in processing permit applications.
"Delays have plagued the Bureau of Land Management's oil and gas permitting process for years," Barrasso said in the release, adding that Wyoming BLM offices face similar struggles with processing permits in a timely manner.
The program used San Juan College students to help process permit-related paperwork in the Farmington field office.
New Mexico Oil and Gas Association president Steve Henke said his organization supports the bill.
"We're supportive, and we worked with Sen. Udall on that bill," Henke said in a phone interview.
Funding for the pilot program is set to expire in 2015. The bill permanently reauthorizes the Permit Processing Improvement Fund, and provides the Interior Secretary with more flexibility to designate new pilot offices and allocate resources based on shifting oil and gas production trends.
However, if the bill is approved, funding would not start until fiscal year 2017, leaving New Mexico oil and gas companies uncertain whether the BLM will continue to struggle with a backlog of permits until then, Henke said.
He said they understand the difficulties BLM has faced amid budgetary and staff constraints mainly related to the sequestration — across-the-board budget cuts allowed by Congress in 2013 — and as a result, his organization and BLM have entered into an agreement, separate from the bill, that would fund the bureau's field offices for permitting purposes through 2017.
The agreement would provide the Carlsbad field office about $800,000 annually with options for doing something similar in Farmington.
He said the Carlsbad field office processes about 1,000 permits a year, while Farmington processes about 200 permits year.
"We would like to double that amount," he said.
Another provision of the bill would increase permit application fees from $6,500 to $9,500 per permit.
Henke said the association doesn't want the increase, but they approve of the proposed restructuring of permit fee allocations to keep more money in the local offices. Seventy-five percent of the fees would be allocated to the field offices to help with permits.
Henke said he hopes the government passes the bill because for every dollar the government spends for permitting, they receive about $54 in return.
"We hope the federal government would make a substantial investment in their revenue generating program," he said.Erny Zah is The Daily Times business editor. He can be reached at 505-564-4638.and email@example.com. Follow him @ernyzah on Twitter.