Need a good indication of the Department of the Interior’s current priorities? It’s keeping 800 employees active during the government shutdown for the express purpose of processing new oil drilling applications and pushing forward with plans to drill in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.
“While the shutdown scorches our public lands, wildlife, and everyday Americans’ livelihoods, [Acting Interior Secretary] David Bernhardt is still making sure oil and gas special interests get through this shutdown unscathed,” wrote Chris Saeger, executive director of the conservation nonprofit Western Values Project, in a statement. “Our national parks, special places that our government has pledged to protect forever, are being pillaged while precious taxpayer funding is going to protect industry operations. Like his predecessor before him, Bernhardt is tipping the scale and putting special interests above the rest of us.”
Eight-hundred of the 2,300 Bureau of Land Management staff who remain on duty during the shutdown are dedicated to serving the oil and gas industries. Additionally, it appears as if furloughed staff, who are specifically banned from performing business functions during the shutdown, are selectively remaining active to work on issues related to drilling in ANWR. Alaska Public Media discovered that one BLM employee sent emails to schedule meetings related to the ANWR drilling environmental review process on January 3, yet responded to other inquiries with an auto response stating: “Due to the lapse in funding of the federal government budget, I am out of the office. I am not authorized to work during this time, but will respond to your email when I return to the office.”
This is particularly problematic because that review process is supposed to be transparent and facilitate public input. But right now, BLM staff are not available to answer the public’s questions and public input meetings are being scheduled with as little as one day’s notice—not nearly enough time in general, but specifically a problem in Alaska, during the winter.
And that’s caught the attention of House Natural Resources Committee Chairperson Raúl Grijalva, who on Monday wrote to Bernhardt with his concerns. “Asking people to comment on two major development processes in the Arctic with huge potential environmental and human consequences without anyone in the agency able to answer questions defeats the purpose of the public participation process,” he wrote in the letter. He went on to request that Bernhardt provide details on who’s funding this work and under what authorization to his office by Friday.
Western Values points out that this isn’t the first time Bernhardt’s DOI has directed staff to prioritize the oil and gas industry at a time when other government work isn’t being conducted. In 2017, two Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement employees were asked to work over Christmas in order to speed well permitting for a former lobbying client of Bernhardt’s. In an email obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, DOI press secretary Heather Swift called that a “nice Christmas present.”