Public comment opportunity rings hollow as Interior staff don’t bother waiting for end of meeting to send official memo granting oil and gas industry wish
These days, when the oil and gas industry says “jump,” Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Interior Department asks “how high?” Yesterday, at a meeting of an advisory committee loaded with industry interests, oil and gas representatives recommended the Interior Department punch more loopholes through a landmark environmental law, reducing environmental reviews and public input on new drilling projects. Before the meeting had even ended, agency officials had already granted their wish.
The race by the Interior Department to grant this oil and gas industry request shows that opportunities for public input are treated by Zinke’s staff as a complete sham. At yesterday’s Royalty Policy Committee meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, so many people showed up to oppose the industry proposals that a 30-minute public comment period ran to an hour and a half. Protesters demonstrated outside.
Secretary Zinke’s energy advisor, Vincent DeVito, tweeted his thanks to all that showed up, later telling E&E News, “these folks, some have jobs, I presume; some have other things to do; some have errands — and if they’re coming here to be heard by the government, why would we do anything other than hear them?”
But in this Interior Department, ordinary members of the public stand no chance against the oil and gas industry. The folks who gave public comment in Albuquerque didn’t even have to wait 8 hours before their input was rejected.
When companies seek to drill new oil and gas wells on public lands, they generally have to conduct an environmental review, involving opportunities for the public to comment, as required by the nearly 50-year old National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). These reviews help minimize impacts to communities and critical outdoor places.
Industry lobbyists have long sought to reduce or eliminate those reviews on new drilling projects, and in Secretary Zinke’s Royalty Policy Committee, they found a megaphone. A subcommittee comprised of two oil and gas associations, one of the nation’s largest coal companies, and a political representative for Alaska’s pro-drilling governor recommended that Secretary Zinke mandate the application of environmental review loopholes to a wide range of drilling projects, something that had previously been up to the discretion of local field offices.
Amazingly, before the meeting had finished, acting director of the Bureau of Land Management Brian Steed sent a memo to all BLM field offices directing them to apply those loopholes, passed as part of the 2005 Energy Policy Act, that would exempt projects from environmental reviews and the accompanying public input if proposed wells:
- Would disturb less than 5 acres and have been previously evaluated in a “site-specific” NEPA document, or
- Are drilled in a location previously drilled within the past 5 years, or
- Are drilled within a “developed field” that has been evaluated through the NEPA process within the past 5 years.
These broad exemptions could be applied to new drilling projects across the West, with negative impacts for communities and wildlife. An analysis by University of Utah law professor John Ruple and former Commerce Department attorney Mark Capone found that drilling projects developed using these loopholes generally result in greater surface disturbance than those undergoing an environmental review, largely as the result of piecemeal road planning. The scholars concluded that these loopholes could be “permitting tens of thousands of acres of avoidable surface disturbance every year.”
Given Secretary Zinke’s track record of pushing drilling on our public lands at all costs and his cozy relationship with industry CEOs, it’s not surprising that his staff acted on oil and gas industry requests. It is remarkable, however, that Zinke’s staff were so eager that they couldn’t even wait until the meeting was over before granting industry representatives their wish.