When Mary Ramsey started her job with the Bureau of Land Management’s Dickinson office 16 years ago, it was a quiet job.
“This was just a sleepy little office,” said Ramsey, a legal instruments examiner that helps process applications for permits to drill on federal lands.
“It’s been hectic,” she said Friday in a small cubicle, surrounded by papers. “You just can’t catch up and then you end up with piles on the floor.”
The office has added a dozen staff members and often taps into remote teleworkers and “strike teams” that knock out a bunch of permits in a few weeks, but the backlog for APDs has still grown the past few months, up to 525 as of Tuesday.
“That backlog is not just the BLM’s backlog,” Dickinson assistant field manager Loren Wickstrom said.
Other agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs also play roles in the process.
The process is further delayed beyond BLM’s control with “deficiencies” in operators’ applications, he said, like surface location or leasing issues.
As the oil industry boomed, BLM employees would leave their jobs for similar ones in the industry.
“Oh, we had so many going-away events,” Ramsey said.
Some employees hired to fill those gaps would leave after a few months because of the workload - some wouldn’t even make it to town in the first place, perhaps after checking rents.
In 2012, the BLM twice set up “strike teams” in a Miles City, Mont., office conference room to knock out a bunch of North Dakota applications.
One team processed 300 permits in a month.
In an average month, the Dickinson office processes around 40, according to data on the office’s permitting activity from the past year.
“We had a situation where applications for permits to drill were just coming in at great amounts on a monthly basis,” said Diane Friez, the BLM’s Montana/Dakotas district manager, “and the staff that was there just could not keep up with the workload.”
The strike teams are comprised of veterans and experts in their fields, be that petroleum engineering, archeology or land law.
“This can’t be a training experience,” Friez said of the teams, which were made of BLM oil and gas employees nationwide. “We need people that have knowledge and know what they’re doing and can hit the ground running.”
The BLM still often dispatches one or two outside employees to North Dakota to help with on-the-ground work like inspections.
Then there are the teleworkers, who help process parts of the application from their desks at other BLM offices.
“They’re sitting here in Miles City doing North Dakota work,” Friez said.
The BLM doesn’t just do APDs - it also ensures operators follow the rules once they start drilling.
“It’s a lot more than just … APDs,” Ramsey said. “That would be a dream.”
When the workload was at its highest, Ramsey and her coworkers called themselves the “night crew” and would sometimes work until 9 p.m. playing catchup.
Increasing staffing has helped that, but Wickstrom said positions on the organizational chart remain empty because the money’s not there.
North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer and Sen. John Hoeven, both Republicans, have worked on legislation this session that would send half the $6,500 APD fee back to the field office doing the work, tying the revenue to the workload.
Cramer’s bill passed the House a couple weeks ago as part of the Federal Lands Jobs and Energy Security Act.
Sending more money to field offices would help the government because the more permits the offices can approve, the more royalties the government reaps from drilling on federal lands, Cramer said.
“If companies have multiple places to drill and to generate income and one place is easier to drill than another and one place becomes too much of a hassle, you may not get them drilling there at all,” he said.
In another effort to solve the recruiting issue, the BLM has acquired land in Dickinson for employee housing, Wickstrom said.
The plans are in early stages, and the housing wouldn’t open for at least a year. The BLM is currently looking for funding opportunities, Friez said.
But it’s progress for an office that currently houses some employees in trailers outside of town.
The housing would be a better option for temporary employees that come for 30 to 60 days and only have pricey hotels or trailers as alternatives. It’d also help assuage potential new employees’ concerns over high housing prices.
Strike teams, teleworkers and more full-time staff are helping the Dickinson office catch up. But the permit backlog is still huge, and months with big influxes of applications can halt any progress in catching up, Wickstrom said.
“We’re treading water, let’s put it that way.”