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WASHINGTON - Companies that want to drill for oil, gas and other minerals on federal land soon may have to pay the cost of processing their permit applications.
Under proposed new regulations, the Bureau of Land Management, which manages more than 260 million acres, would charge $4,000 to handle applications for permits to drill for oil and natural gas. Permit applications for other minerals could be more.
Due to the bureau's sparse coverage of Southeast Alaska, regional spokesman Edward Bovy said existing mines would not be affected. The U.S. Forest Service handles permits for operations in the Tongass National Forest, which includes the Greens Creek Mine.
Environmentalists praised the plan, but industry advocates and others were critical.
"This doesn't seem like a fair business practice to us," said Jennifer Zuccarelli, press secretary for the House Resources Committee. "There are already so many barriers to mineral development in the United States. This is just one more that's going to lead companies to question whether it's beneficial to do business in the United States any more."
The BLM says the estimated $23.5 million it would raise each year from the fees would help BLM offices in western states that now are hustling to keep up with the increasing number of applications.
The decision comes as the demand on the BLM to process oil and gas exploration and development permits is skyrocketing.
In Utah, the heart of the Rocky Mountain oil and gas frontier, the state BLM office processed about 725 applications for permits to drill last year, more than any past year.
The Vernal, Utah, field office received three times the number of applications as it did 10 years ago, with the same number of minerals staff.
Environmentalists, who have long wanted to slow down the speed of mineral development in the West, think industry "should pay for the cost of the programs they benefit from," said David Alberswerth, BLM program director for The Wilderness Society.
But Claire Moseley, executive director of the petroleum industry group Public Lands Advocacy, said oil and gas companies already pay royalties and other associated fees when they drill on federal land.