Secretary of the Interior, oil lobbyist David Bernhardt, walks through a tunnel.
Secretary of the Interior, oil lobbyist David Bernhardt, walks through a tunnel.
Indefinitely Wild

DOI Harms Environmental Protections Until the End

In its final months, Trump's Department of the Interior shows its true colors by rushing through drilling leases in Alaska and rewriting major components of the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act

Secretary of the Interior, oil lobbyist David Bernhardt, walks through a tunnel.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

The Trump administration dumped news of two harmful policy decisions late Friday night: budget restrictions for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) that make the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) nearly unworkable and an effort to rush through oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021. 

The two policies have a lot in common. Both were orchestrated by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt. Both were written in favor of the oil and gas industries, for which Bernhardt is a lobbyist, at the expense of the American people. Both have the potential to damage the environment and worsen the effects of climate change. And while both will likely be reversed by the incoming administration, both policies seem designed to make the first few months of that administration more difficult, tying up political capital and man hours that could be better spent working in benefit of voters and the environment—rather than simply undoing the harm caused by Bernhardt’s tenure.

The assault on the GAOA was previewed the day before the election, when DOI missed a deadline to file a list of projects that would receive LWCF funding in fiscal year 2021. In addition to partially addressing the multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog on public lands, the main accomplishment of the GAOA is that it permanently funds the LWCF with an amount of money that’s currently one quarter of the total budget that program was intended to receive, when adjusted for inflation. The fear was that missing the deadline indicated Bernhardt was up to something. Turns out he was. 

The LWCF uses revenue generated by offshore oil and gas leases to fund projects that increase public access and recreational opportunities on public lands and to protect vulnerable ecosystems. With the passage of the GAOA, Congress devoted $900 million per year to the LWCF, all of which comes without cost to taxpayers. 

What was announced on Friday is a secretarial order giving both state and local governments veto power over the use of those funds within their borders. “A written expression of support by both the affected Governor and local county or county government-equivalent (e.g. parish, borough) is required for the acquisition of land, water, or an interest in land or water under the Federal LWCF program,” the order reads. 

The order also allows DOI’s agencies to direct LWCF funds in accordance with a budget established by the president, not Congress, in contravention of how the GAOA is written. 

Together, both directives in the order effectively rewrite the GAOA and undermine the authority of Congress. As you’d expect, lawmakers are pissed. 

“It’s disappointing that the Secretary of the Interior is attempting to circumvent congressional intent by adding unwanted new restrictions,” Sam Runyon, spokesperson for Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), told E&E News. “Congress, which is not bound by the secretarial order, will determine the final list of projects that will receive federal funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.” 

When I spoke to Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) shortly after the election, he told me that Congress may need to directly appropriate LWCF funds in order to circumvent Bernhardt’s meddling. 

Let’s talk about Bernhardt’s shenanigans in Alaska.

Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a large, complicated topic that can be boiled down to this: it’s unpopular, it’ll be unprofitable, and it’s going to kill baby polar bears. Opening it up for oil exploitation seems to be about creating an incredibly harmful but largely symbolic victory for Republican lawmakers. 

So, Bernhardt’s DOI has announced plans to rush through permitting, just ahead of Biden’s nomination. On Monday, a “call for nominations” was posted on the Federal Register, which allows oil companies to specify which areas of ANWR land they would like to lease. That process will continue for 30 days, at which point DOI has another 30 days before it can issue a final notice of lease sales. Sixty days from today is January 15—five days before Biden takes office. 

Typically, this process wouldn’t be conducted in the minimum amount of time. Doing so likely precludes scientific analysis for the impact of proposed activities in lease areas and likely does not allow time for public input to be adequately assessed, as a variety of laws require. And that could give the next administration the ability to easily cancel these sales. 

Given the likelihood that both the LWCF order and the ANWR lease sales are going to be overturned next year, why is Bernhardt putting in the effort? (DOI did not respond to Outside’s request for comment.)

It’s not about jobs. While one of the arguments for ANWR drilling is that it may generate some oilfield jobs in northern Alaska, the speed of developing infrastructure in such a remote, austere place is much slower than the speed of permitting. The New York Times estimates that even if work does begin in ANWR next year, it could be a decade before the first oil is extracted from the region. In contrast, by monkeying with LWCF budgets, Bernhardt is threatening thousands of good-paying jobs in the outdoor recreation industry right now, in the middle of the worst economic recession in living memory. 

It’s not about revenue. Developing ANWR will be expensive. To turn a profit from drilling, oil would need to cost $78 a barrel. Yet, right now, oil is hovering around $40 a barrel. As oil subsidies come to an end and renewable energy is given greater priority, that break-even point is only going to go up. Meanwhile, LWCF funding has a proven track record as a sound investment, especially when it comes to the land acquisition Bernhardt’s order seeks to prevent. When DOI invested $214 million in land in 2010, it created $442 million in annual economic activity by 2015, along with 3,000 jobs. 

It’s not about local input in decision-making on public lands, either. It’s counterintuitive on the surface, but a variety of high-profile conservation laws, like NEPA, FLPMA, and NFMA, not only mandate significant local input but also provide the tools for it. In contrast, state management of land requires no such mechanisms. And Bernhardt and the Trump administration have spent the past four years fighting against those public input laws, not for them. Giving state and local governments veto power over the LWCF is an attempt to subvert, not facilitate, the public’s voice. 

So, why do this? And why now, so close to the end of this administration? Maybe it’s because Bernhardt and his cronies are exactly the corrupt, immoral pawns of the fossil fuel industry we’ve been saying they are all along

“This administration is ending as it began, with a desperate push for oil drilling regardless of the human or environmental costs,” says Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), chairperson of the House Natural Resources Committee. “It’s fitting that President Trump is going out with one last try to score political points by destroying our environment, and that he’s being replaced by someone who understands the much greater stakes involved in these decisions.”