Ken Salazar's move to restrict drilling rejected by federal judge

Since his appointment as Secretary of the Interior in 2009, Ken Salazar has been the point man for the Obama administration's efforts to put the brakes on the drill-baby-drill energy policy of the Bush years, often facing stiff opposition from congressional leaders and the oil and gas lobby in the process.

And now a federal judge has shot down one key element of that strategy.

The latest blow comes in a ruling issued last Friday by U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal in the District of Wyoming in a lawsuit brought by the Western Energy Alliance. WEA had challenged a rule change by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service that required additional environmental review of proposed oil and gas leases on federal lands. Freudenthal, the wife of a former Wyoming governor, declared that the government had no authority to make the revision, adopted quietly last year, "without public notice and an opportunity for comment."

At issue is a murky section of the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which was designed to speed up the drilling lease process by granting "categorical exclusions" to energy companies from certain aspects of environmental review -- the rationale being that most drilling operations supposedly involve minimal surface disturbance and don't need to be bogged down in bureaucratic procedures. In response to lawsuits over that section, Salazar's team came up with a process for screening categorical exclusions to see if they involved "extraordinary circumstances" that would trigger additional review.

But the Obama administration didn't go far enough in subjecting its own additional layer of bureaucracy to public review, Judge Freudenthal ruled. Such an "about-face" in the law couldn't be done simply through an administrative memo, she concluded -- and issued a nationwide injunction against the change.

Here's the complete order -- something the attorneys for Interior will be poring over as the Salazar team ponders its next move.

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