The Department of Agriculture may require environmental reviews before giving mortgages to people who have leased their land for oil and gas drilling, affecting people living in rural areas where most drilling is done. Ian Urbina of The New York Times reports that about $18 million in loans was handed out last year through the USDA's Rural Housing Service program to mostly low-income rural residents in Pennsylvania, Texas and Louisiana, where there's been a recent natural gas boom. The decision would also affect the Rural Business and Cooperative program.
Environmental reviews haven't been required before loans are made, but Urbina reports the decision "reflects a growing concern that lending to owners of properties with drilling leases might violate the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental reviews before federal money is spent." In USDA emails sent to Congress and landowners, several reasons for the decision are cited, including cost. The reviews would "give the public a fuller accounting of the potential environmental risks of drilling (and) help protect the agency from litigation from environmental groups -- a cost that would ultimately be borne by taxpayers." It would also mean landowners who already signed drilling leases would "face hurdles if they applied for federally backed mortgages." (Read more)