Special interest groups have long relied on the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) to delay or halt domestic oil and gas development. Now, reversing decades of policy and practice, the federal government (e.g. the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service and the Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management) seems to be playing along with the environmentalists' strategy. The government apparently has determined to apply NEPA not only to the availability of federal lands for oil and gas development, but also to the grant of specific oil and gas leases and perhaps even for mere access to drill individual wells. This new policy needlessly pits the government against mineral rights holders. Oddly, at a time when the country clearly needs different energy infrastructure and resources, the government is using NEPA to avoid engagement on the substantive questions and as a vehicle for delay.

The evidence of a policy shift is clear.

All wells are subject to various state and federal environmental controls and substantive standards. The lawsuits and settlements noted above are not about whether those substantive standards or controls adequately protect the environment. Rather, they are lawsuits over whether and how many "environmental impact" studies must be performed prior to drilling a well. This is irrational.

We can keep on importing oil and burning coal for electricity, or we can change. Engagement and debate on whether domestic drilling and greater energy independence is, on balance, for good or ill is welcome. Delay in engagement to perform "environmental impact studies" is just delay for its own sake, irrational, wasteful, and the opposite of change.