[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Investigations.]
By Vince Bielski
Real Clear Investigations
The Trump administration’s big strike against the federal bureaucracy is quietly unfolding at the Bureau of Land Management, where its senior managers and scientific staff have been told to pack up their desks in Washington, D.C., and move to its new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo. and other western offices. Most employees aren’t climbing aboard the wagon train.
The shake-up, meant to make the bureaucracy more accountable to the drillers, cattle ranchers, hunters and hikers who use America’s public lands, is part of the sweeping deregulation that has fueled a boom in U.S. energy production through last year. In its earliest days, the administration declared energy independence a top priority and two years later oil production on federal and tribal lands and offshore hit record highs — a surge that will likely slow as the coronavirus pandemic cuts demand and rocks the industry.
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“It’s more efficient now,” says Kathleen Sgamma, president of Western Energy Alliance, a trade group representing 300 oil and gas companies that pushed for the BLM move. “You can be productive without fighting for years to get a permit. They are processed more efficiently in less time.”
The gusher that has been feeding the coffers of states like Wyoming and New Mexico, however, is also raising concerns about the impact on some of the country’s spectacular landscapes and wildlife. Noting that only 80 of 174 employees have agreed to move west, environmental groups and some former BLM managers warn that relocating the agency’s headquarters reflects a broader shift of authority to political appointees, from career bureaucrats with years of expertise.
“The relocation will have a substantial impact on the management of our public lands,’’ says Ray Brady, a retired senior manager and minerals specialist who worked in the Washington headquarters for 23 years. “We view it as a dismantling of the organization and turning major decisions on public lands over to political people who have agendas.” The department and bureau didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The move began in November 2019 with a target completion date of July 1, and the pandemic, which may provide an unexpected rationale for getting out of a major population center, is not expected to significantly slow it down. But nonessential BLM travel is on hold for now.
It represents tests both of the power of the administrative state and of striking a balance between the competing forces of development and conservation on public lands. It also promises to be a key regional issue in the 2020 election. At a campaign rally in Colorado in February, a state Donald Trump lost in 2016, the president touted the BLM relocation as part of his effort to end “the tyranny of Washington bureaucrats.” Joe Biden, the likely Democratic nominee, would have the bureau flex its regulatory muscles like never before. He would ban new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters to reduce the threat of climate change. Carbon emissions from energy produced on federal lands amount to one quarter of the U.S. total.
Americans have a lot riding on the outcome. BLM manages 245 million acres of public lands – 10% of the U.S. land mass — primarily in 12 Western states. The iconic sagebrush deserts, grasslands and rugged mountains hold rich oil and gas deposits, robust elk and antelope herds, desert monuments and tribal cultural sites. Federal and tribal property produce about 10% of U.S. oil and gas sales. BLM also cares for 28 national monuments and other conservation areas encompassing red-rock deserts, jagged coastline and remote tundra.
The bureau was founded in 1946, and in its first three decades quietly served cattle ranchers and coal miners who needed permits to use public lands. The rise of environmentalism and increased pressure on the lands changed the game by the 1970s: The National Environmental Policy Act forced federal agencies to examine ecological and health impacts — and take public input — before making decisions. A few years later the Federal Land Policy and Management Act gave BLM new and broader marching orders to manage public lands under a multiple-use principle. It now had to balance the interests of many competing groups – conservationists, drillers, hunters, miners and ranchers – in carving up lands for grazing, historical preservation, recreation, resource extraction and wildlife protection.
The “Sagebrush Rebellion” sprung up in the West in the 1970s to challenge the government’s tightening grip on public lands and the movement still reverberates today. William Perry Pendley, who was appointed BLM’s acting chief by Interior Secretary David L. Bernhardt, calls himself a “Sagebrush Rebel.” The firebrand property-rights attorney rose to prominence by suing BLM and other federal agencies on behalf of ranchers and drillers who depend on public lands.
BLM has wiggle room in striking that balance between development and conservation, making its job tricky. Its offices spread throughout the West in cities like Boise, Billings and Carson City solicit input from groups with opposing land-use agendas. Staffers then apply scientific expertise to assess the best use of the resources and impact on the environment, and try to reach a consensus. But the hardest part of the balancing act can be navigating Washington politics, as Democratic and Republican administrations zealously push their priorities onto BLM decision-making. The radical swing from Barack Obama to Donald Trump is the latest example
“The Obama administration was laser focused on conservation and I wasn’t a fan of that. It was too far left and not enough in the middle,” says Mary Jo Rugwell, who retired as BLM Wyoming state director in August after 46 years of federal service. “The Trump administration is all about removing barriers and restrictions to development.”
Soon after Trump took office, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced a shift in the balance. While Zinke’s strategic plan includes fishing, hunting and recreation, it stresses drilling above all else: “An American-First energy policy is one that maximizes the use of American resources in freeing us from dependence on foreign oil,” wrote Zinke, who resigned in late 2018 amid investigations into his conduct and was succeeded by Bernhardt, his like-minded deputy.
To speed up energy production, the department significantly streamlined BLM regulations. In January 2018 officials ended the requirement for public input during environmental review of potential leases and cut the days for protests of lease offerings by more than half to 10. The number of new acres leased shot up by 117% in fiscal 2018 compared with two years earlier. And the time it takes to get a drilling permit on leased land was slashed by almost three months in that period. In 2019, oil production on federal and tribal lands and offshore hit a record of more than 1 billion barrels, almost a 30% jump.
The BLM move shifts more than 200 filled and unfilled career positions in Washington to Grand Junction and other Western outposts — primarily the bureau’s top leaders and staffers with training in biology, geology, forestry, rangelands and archeology. As the experts leave Washington, major decisions will be made by political appointees who lack scientific training, say current and former BLM managers.
Retiree Brady said the agency’s renewable-energy program, which he helped create and oversaw, requires scientific expertise and collaboration that may be lost in the relocation. The large wind and solar energy developments on public lands can disturb the ecology and cultural sites, threaten endangered species like the desert tortoise and bald eagle and impinge on military installations and parklands. Brady said a technical staff is needed in Washington to collaborate with the National Park Service, Fish & Wildlife Service and the Defense and Energy departments to reduce possible harm from the renewable-energy projects.
Bernhardt has already put political appointees in charge of major BLM land-use decisions. In 2018, he said a team of six political appointees and one career professional must review all actions that involve an environmental impact statement. This includes pivotal resource management plans created by field and state offices that divide up public lands for conservation, drilling, recreation and other uses for 20-year periods. The appointees on the team are lawyers and former Capitol Hill and department staffers with little or no scientific training. Before the order, BLM experts in Washington had played the leading role in reviewing plans, with occasional input from political appointees on major decisions, says Steve Ellis, who retired in 2016 as BLM deputy director, the top career post.
“The review has been taken over by political people who are not scientists and have never worked in the field,” says Ellis, a forester by training.
State offices that have submitted plans to headquarters for review have been told to open more land to oil and gas leasing. In Wyoming, the biggest energy exporting-state in the country, the Rock Springs field office developed a draft plan that fenced off a limited number of acres from leasing in its region while allowing drilling in other areas. The restrictions, which were requested by local officials and groups, were meant to protect the city’s aquifer and some sensitive big-game habitat. When the plan was presented to headquarters in 2018, the then-BLM director shot it down. He told Wyoming staffers to go back to the drawing board and make a plan that was less restrictive to drilling, says Rugwell, who was in the meeting.
“He said, ‘Are you trying to turn BLM into the National Park Service?’” Rugwell said. “That insulted me. I take pride in trying to be balanced. When I tried to explain that we had listened to the people of Wyoming, that didn’t make a difference.” The field office is now revising its plan.
In Montana, the Lewistown field office’s draft plan called for setting aside about 100,000 acres because of its wilderness characteristics. The land is next to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, some of Montana’s wildest habitat with robust herds of bugling elk and mule deer. While this land surface would be off-limits to development, the plan sought to strike a balance by permitting oil and gas drilling on more than 1 million acres in the district.
The political team in Washington asked for changes in the plan that eliminated the wilderness characteristics’ protections. The final 2020 plan allows for drilling and road building under controlled conditions in the wilderness area.
The tradeoff between energy production and wildlife conservation is evident in New Mexico, an epicenter of the U.S. surge in energy production. The state’s San Juan Basin is one of the country’s most prolific oil and gas regions. But the drilling infrastructure in the area has disrupted mule deer migration from Colorado to winter feeding grounds in New Mexico. That prompted Sen. Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, to introduce a bill last year with bipartisan backing giving federal agencies authority to create national wildlife corridors to protect the state’s big game and other animals around the country hurt by the loss of habitat.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park is another flashpoint in New Mexico. Navajo Nation leaders oppose drilling close to Chaco Canyon where ancient ruins have been preserved. After Bernhardt visited the park last year, he said, he “walked away with a greater sense of appreciation of the magnificent site” and announced a one-year moratorium on leasing within a 10-mile radius of Chaco while BLM revised its resource management plan for the area.
The stakes are also high for the greater sage grouse. A 2015 plan from the Obama administration covering 10 states established restrictions on development to keep the bird from being listed as an endangered species. Last year, BLM revised the plan to permit more drilling and other development by reducing restrictions on millions of acres of sensitive habitat. But a federal judge in Idaho blocked the revisions from going into effect, citing a wildlife biologist who found that the bureau ignored analyzing how its changes would impact sage grouse habitat in a way that’s “inconsistent with standard practices and the best available science.” The bureau responded in February with supplemental environmental analysis to justify its revisions.
Amid a string of legal challenges, BLM’s Pendley points to the benefits of the U.S. becoming the world’s largest producer of crude oil.
People in states that depend heavily on energy production — such as Wyoming, New Mexico and North Dakota — are the winners. An astonishing 50% of Wyoming’s revenue comes from energy industry taxes and royalties. Job growth in oil and gas extraction has been robust until a recent slowdown, made worse by the pandemic that has caused oil prices to plunge.
“Barack Obama says you cannot drill your way out of energy dependence. And the president came in and said, ‘We are going to do it,’ and we have done it,” Pendley said in mid-February on a Colorado radio show. “It’s an unprecedented accomplishment.”
BLM employees in Washington appear to be the losers. Brady, the retired minerals expert, says far fewer employees, only about 20%, will end up making the move, based on a survey he has done will most of the leadership and staff. Many of them are disillusioned over their diminished role at BLM and are either retiring or finding positions at other agencies.
“A lot of good people are fleeing the agency,” a BLM senior manager with extensive experience in Washington wrote in an email before retiring in February. “This administration does not respect career employees.”
Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, who spearheaded the effort to move the agency to his state, isn’t concerned about the experts the bureau is losing. The Republican lawmaker said BLM is hiring to fill those spots and that it is more important to have career employees living in the West where they’ll learn about the local issues and take a more common-sense approach to regulation.
“If people don’t want to live and work in the West, on the land that they’re regulating, that’s probably a good decision” to leave the BLM, he says. “I find it offensive and elitist that somebody would refuse to live on the land they regulate.”
[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Investigations.]