Legality of drilling permits issued during shutdown challenged

Jennifer A. Dlouhy January 17, 2019
Photo: Bakken Shale.

WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration’s decision to keep issuing oil drilling permits during the government shutdown is putting those authorizations in legal jeopardy, environmentalists argued in a filing Thursday.

The Bureau of Land Management has already violated a federal spending law and legal requirements for public consultation by issuing at least 153 drilling permits since the shutdown began on Dec. 22, WildEarth Guardians, the Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity said in a formal objection lodged with the agency.

“The public is entirely locked out of the process” during the shutdown, they argue, since people can’t discuss drilling permits with regulators, visit bureau offices to view applications, or even file public comments on them.

Separately, about three dozen conservation groups wrote to Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Thursday arguing that upcoming sales of oil drilling rights in Colorado and New Mexico should be postponed because the bureau lacks necessary resources during the shutdown -- including the expertise of furloughed government biologists, soil scientists and archaeologists -- to conduct required environmental reviews ahead of those auctions.

The notices amount to a warning shot from environmentalists and a signal that the actions could be challenged in federal court.

The Bureau of Land Management’s continued work on oil and gas activities “is creating legal vulnerabilities,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The only thing trashier than our national parks during this shutdown has been the Trump administration’s coddling of the oil industry.”

Representatives of the BLM did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

The agency halted work on drilling permits and canceled at least one oil lease sale during the 2013 shutdown, but this time, under President Donald Trump, the agency is treating the activity as “exempted.” The shift comes as the Trump administration takes other steps to blunt the shutdown’s impact on the oil industry, including the Interior Department’s decision to recall furloughed workers to prepare documents necessary for upcoming sales of Gulf of Mexico drilling rights.

“The administration has bent over backwards to ensure that the pain of the shutdown falls only on ordinary Americans and the environment, and not on the oil and gas industry,” House Democrats said in a letter to Bernhardt.

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