….US Interior department continues processing permits and moves forward with controversial plan to increase drilling in the Arctic.
Three weeks into the longest US government shutdown in history, many important government services have been paused – but the Trump administration has continued efforts to expand oil drilling.
Despite the shutdown directive, which has seen national park staff furloughed and the parks suffering from neglect, the interior department has continued processing oil drilling permits and applications. It has also moved forward with a controversial plan to increase drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A).
Trump administration moves closer to opening Alaskan Arctic to drilling
According to a “contingency plan” for an interior department agency, the Bureau of Land Management, approved last year, employees exempt from furloughs include those “working on selected energy, minerals and other associated permit activities for which the Bureau charges a processing fee”.
As a result, workers in New Mexico and Wyoming have continued to process oil and gas drilling applications.
In Alaska, the Trump administration is rolling out a contentious plan to overwrite Obama-era protections and expand the oil and gas leasing in two controversial areas, the wildlife refuge and the NPR-A. Since the shutdown began, the interior department moved forward with previously scheduled public meetings to educate stakeholders and provide opportunities for comment and discussion.
Conversely, the same type of meetings scheduled by the Department for an 800-megawatt wind farm project being built off the coast of Massachusetts, were canceled.
Oversight officials have begun to probe the agency.
“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,” chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Raúl M Grijalva wrote in a letter to the acting secretary of the interior, David Benhardt on 7 January.
He added that the move gave “the strong impression that BLM is simply trying to check the boxes and end the comment periods as soon as possible, not engage in a meaningful dialogue with impacted communities or stakeholders”.
Since Grijalva’s letter, the remaining scheduled meetings have been canceled and comment periods extended. In a statement to reporters, Alaska-based officials said the meetings were funded from previous fiscal year appropriations and contended they did not violate any rules.
‘No shame’: how the Trump administration granted big oil’s wishlist
The interior department did not respond to a request for comment from the Guardian, and is also not accepting requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
“That is how they are trying getting around this,” said Aaron Weiss, the deputy director for Center for Western Priorities. “They are claiming that the PR staff who would usually be answering questions are not essential, so they are refusing to answer any press questions.”
Referring to the head of the interior department, Weiss said that “really shows where Dave Bernhardt’s priorities are – that he considers [the oil drilling meetings] an essential government function”.
During shutdowns, agency operations are limited to employees deemed essential, typically for security and safety. Bridget Psarianos, a staff attorney with the Trustees for Alaska, who previously worked for the BLM, said she had never seen public meetings, like those that occurred in Alaska, take place during shutdowns.
“Holding these hearings during a shutdown really demonstrates that the priority of Trump administration is helping out large corporations and resource development rather than Alaskans and Americans who aren’t getting paychecks right now and who aren’t able to access important government services,” she said.
She added that the department might also be in violation of the Federal Anti-Deficiency Act, legislation that prohibits agencies from financing work that has not been appropriated, and barring voluntary services.
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