Federal workers at the Bureau of Land Management approved 74 oil and gas drilling permits in Wyoming during the 35-day government shutdown earlier this year, according to a public records request submitted by a western environmental group.
A partial shutdown shuttered some federal agencies in late December as Congress and President Donald Trump bickered over the White House’s desire to fund a $5 billion wall along the country’s southern border with Mexico. An estimated 800,000 workers were affected, with many banned from work until Congress agreed on funding that reopened the government. It was the longest shutdown in U.S. history.
But about half way through the partial shutdown, some BLM employees were brought back to work in western field offices in order to process drilling permit applications for oil and gas companies, in particular at the Carlsbad field office in New Mexico, which processes permit applications for part of the Permian Basin, most of which is in West Texas.
In total the BLM continued processing drilling permit applications in six states. The largest chunk in New Mexico, where 100 applications for permits to drill were processed during the shutdown. The second largest number of approved drilling permits, one quarter of the 267 APDs processed during the shutdown, was in Wyoming, an Interior Department spokeswoman said in an email.
Wyoming Bureau of Land Management approved 68 drilling permits during the shutdown, said spokesman Bradford Purdy.
Purdy said some field offices reported their APDs a little late, so the 74 approvals reported by the Star-Tribune, from the FOIA records, was not unreasonable. The FOIA notes 74 APD approvals between Jan. 14 and Jan 24, for companies such as EOG Resources, BP America, Devon Energy and Jonah Energy.
A limited return of Wyoming employees to address state drilling permit applications as well as sundries – approvals needed when oil and gas firms want to make adjustments to approved drilling plants – began on Jan. 14, according to the bureau.
Molly Block, spokeswoman for the Interior, said that the drilling permit process was not shortened or truncated due to the limited processing during the shutdown and all appropriate laws regarding public comment and environmental review were followed with each application.
Industry had pushed for the some allowances for its operations to continue, arguing that the shutdown was hobbling its activities, from drilling permit approvals to the more mundane daily operations that require BLM oversight on public lands.
The Center for Western Priorities, which directed the public records request, had sought information that would unveil what activities were prioritized during the partial government closure given that public parks were left open but unstaffed, said policy director Jesse Prentice-Dunn.
Western groups had expressed frustration over the environmental damages committed in national parks while the government was in shutdown and park employees on furlough. National Geographic reported in January that the damages from leaving facilities unattended could take years to repair, in addition to an existing $11 billion maintenance backlog.
Prentice-Dunn said the allowance of the oil and gas bureaucracy to continue during the shutdown was reflective of the BLM’s energy-centric approach under Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former energy lobbyist who shepherded controversial changes to sage grouse management plans in Wyoming as deputy interior secretary.
“It speaks volumes that he sent folks back to work during the shutdown, specifically to process drilling permits,” Prentice-Dunn said. “That has nothing to do with maintaining the safety of drilling operations; it’s simply to speed along more drilling applications.”
Environmental groups have become increasingly critical of Bernhardt since former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke stepped down in early January, and it appeared likely that the acting secretary would take Zinke’s place.
Bernhardt is from a small town in Western Colorado and spent part of his childhood at his grandparents’ ranch in southwest Wyoming, according to his recent testimony during his confirmation hearing before Congress. The acting secretary noted the multiple uses of western lands – agriculture, outdoor recreation and energy – during the speech.
Bernhardt has been a behind-the-scenes voice in crucial Wyoming management decisions under the Trump administration. He was in contact with Gov. Matt Mead’s office during the Interior’s work to revise sage grouse management plans and has made quiet trips to visit local officials in the state.
Block, the spokeswoman for the Interior Department, said the continued operations when agencies were unfunded was intended to reduce the impact of the shutdown.
“Our overarching priority was to minimize the impacts of this lapse, to the greatest extent possible under the law, on our employees and the communities and public we serve,” Block wrote in an email Tuesday.
She noted that some renewable projects were also worked on during the shutdown, such as archaeological work in the California Desert District for a solar project.
What employees and activities were allowed in the recent shutdown depended on what qualified as exempt, Block wrote, noting that the BLMers working on permit applications were exempt, funded from previous year appropriations and/or non-appropriated permanent funds.
For groups like Western Priorities this is a new direction for the BLM during the shutdowns that have become habitual parts of the U.S. budgeting process over the last decade.
The BLM’s recently-updated shutdown protocol, made effective in January, solidifies the exempted employees approach that would leave APD processing in motion should Congress fail to fund the agency, Prentice-Dunn said.