Environmental groups are crying foul after a letter from an oil and gas advocacy group to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke surfaced indicating energy may have played a significant role in the department’s recent, and controversial, sage grouse decision.
In the July letter, which the industry group also provided to the Star-Tribune, Western Energy Alliance recommended 15 changes to federal sage grouse conservation plans to make it easier for industry firms to do business in the bird’s habitat.
Earlier this month, at Zinke’s request, a panel of sage grouse experts turned in a review of federal conservation plans. It included 13 of WEA’s suggestions.
The review itself was controversial, and Zinke’s comments about how to deem sage grouse conservation successful and whether captive breeding the bird could enhance the population had biologists across the West up in arms. Gov. Matt Mead also weighed in on the review, admonishing caution to the new secretary when it came to managing the bird. Wholesale changes to the plans were unnecessary, the governor said.
Sage grouse narrowly missed an endangered species listing two years ago, when state and federal management plans were deemed sufficient to conserve the grouse without a listing.
The bird is an iconic species in the West, but developing strategies to conserve the bird’s habitat and protect the health of the energy industries that share the bird’s stomping grounds in Wyoming has been a long, difficult process.
For some, the letter is proof that the oil and gas industry has found a backdoor to influence the Trump administration. The environmentalist group that obtained the letter, Western Values, filed a freedom of information request this week seeking all email collaboration between groups like Western Energy Alliance and federal officials at the Interior Department.
“We went through a long process to get where we are at (with federal protections for the grouse),” said Jayson O’Neill, with Western Values Project. “To have that thrown out the window, behind closed doors, we believe people have the right to see those documents and see how those decisions were made.”
Others argue that industry is due a fair hand after the last presidency. The letter reveals nothing inappropriate, they say.
“Our letter was a simple summary,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance. “Anybody can submit a letter to the DOI ... I write everything in case it’s on the front page of the New York Times. It’s nothing new. It’s things we’ve said before many times.”
The WEA has long been forthright in its stance that industry and sage grouse can co-exist, and that oil and gas companies were treated unfairly under previous president Barack Obama.
“The Obama Administration only listened to environmental groups, repeatedly ignored input from the states, from ranchers to energy developers,” Sgamma said. “They took a very one-sided view of the sage grouse plans and I think the Trump Administration is trying to rectify that.”
Others in industry agree that there is room for improvement in the federal plans, but deny that industry has unfair influence in Washington.
“If we really have that much influence, I didn’t know we did,” said John Robitaille, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, upon learning that he was named in a freedom of information request. “I think they are mistaken.”
PAW did make some of their concerns known to the DOI, but that was prior to the sage grouse review, or even any knowledge that there would be a sage grouse review, said Esther Wagner, vice president of public lands for the organization.
But others see the letter as just one sign among many that the federal approach to sage grouse conservation is being influenced by industry and politics.
It’s corroborative of their influence,” said Brian Rutledge, conservation policy and strategy adviser for the National Audubon Society.
Rutledge is a member of the sage grouse implementation team, a decade-long group established by the state of Wyoming. He’s been central in the state’s leadership of sage grouse conservation in the west.
Politics have changed that.
“Having been at the table for 12 years, to suddenly be on the outside whistling in the dark?” he said. “That’s the way it was.”
Rutledge and others have also pointed out that the Bureau of Land Management recently cited a presidential order to promote energy development when justifying a leasing for oil and gas development in sage grouse habitat.
There is a lingering uncertainty about how the bird will be managed and who’s holding the reins.
“We are sort of left wondering where we are” Rutledge said.
Industry is also looking for certainty, but many think it will come from changing the management plans not keeping them as they are.
“We think the interior really just needs to get on with the business of amending those sage grouse plans,” said Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance. “They really need to bite the bullet and start the process.”
In an email response requesting comment for this story, a spokeswoman for the Department of the Interior said, “the report was conducted in direct consultation with multiple states.”