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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Thursday signed an order to hold more lease sales and to speed up approving permits to explore for oil and gas on federal land, a process he said got bogged down under former President Barack Obama.
The order is the latest move by the administration of President Donald Trump to make it easier to drill and mine on federal land, which Zinke said is a source of income for the government.
The Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management is supposed to take 30 days to review applications for permits to drill but Zinke said the average time for processing in 2016 was 257 days.
"I'm directing the BLM to conduct quarterly lease sales and address these permitting issues," Zinke said in a statement. "We are also looking at opportunities to bring support to our front line offices who are facing the brunt of this workload."
There were 2,802 permit applications pending as of Jan. 31, with three quarters of them filed in five field offices in Wyoming, Utah, North Dakota and New Mexico.
On a call with reporters, Zinke did not say how long this streamlining process would take.
"This is not going to be done overnight. What we don’t want is unintended consequences," he said.
Environmental groups criticized the announcement and said that companies have already leased vast amounts of public lands but have held off on drilling due to record low oil prices.
"With historically low gas prices, these companies aren’t using millions of acres of leases they already have, so there’s no reason to hand over even more,” said Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project.
The group pointed to Interior Department data that showed that oil production on federal land increased by 77 percent between 2008 and 2015.
The Independent Petroleum Association of America, a lobby group for independent drillers, welcomed the announcement, which came a week after Zinke met with its president, Barry Russell.
"Reinstating quarterly lease sales is vital as independent producers consider future American energy opportunities on federal lands," said Dan Naatz, the group's head of government relations.
Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Lisa Shumaker