Update: According to a report published by CNN on March 27, 2019, the Bureau of Land Management approved 267 onshore drilling permits and issued 16 oil and gas leases during the government shutdown. The report cited statistics provided by the Interior Department which are not currently available to the public.
Former oil and gas lobbyist David Bernhardt became acting head of the Interior Department on January 2, midway through the historic government shutdown. Under Bernhardt’s command, the Interior Department formally changed its shutdown plans, recalling employees to process drilling permits, both offshore and throughout the Mountain West. A new analysis by the Center for Western Priorities finds that dozens of drilling permits approved during the shutdown were for companies that serve on the boards of major trade associations that were recent clients of David Bernhardt.
According to data from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, 71 offshore drilling permits were approved during the shutdown. Of those, 53 permits were for companies that sit on the board of directors for the National Ocean Industries Association (NOIA), a major offshore drilling trade association and former Bernhardt client. Before joining the Interior Department, Bernhardt represented NOIA in a lawsuit against the Interior Department over offshore drilling leases after the Deepwater Horizon spill, and lists the trade association on his ethics recusal.
Similarly, of the 38 onshore drilling permits approved by the Bureau of Land Management during the shutdown, 20 were for companies that sit on the board of directors of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) or affiliates of the U.S. Oil and Gas Association (USOGA), both former Bernhardt clients. When seeking office at the Interior Department, Bernhardt listed both trade associations on his ethics recusal and noted IPAA was a source of personal income on his financial disclosure.
A new poll finds voters in Colorado, Bernhardt’s home state, reject such an oil and gas-centric approach and want to see more balance in public land management. When asked what mattered most for the Interior Department under David Bernhardt, nearly three-quarters of respondents (74%) said the agency must do a better job striking a balance between preserving public lands and responsible energy development. Just 18% said what mattered most was increased oil and gas development, and only 3% said having a Coloradan running the department was the most important issue. Additionally, the poll found that 77% of Colorado voters are concerned that clients Bernhardt previously lobbied for have business before the department he currently runs.
The government shutdown quickly clarified Acting Interior Secretary Bernhardt’s priority for running the agency — advance oil and gas development no matter the cost — an approach that is set to continue. On the second post-shutdown business day, the Bureau of Land Management issued press releases noting the agency will move forward with upcoming oil and gas lease sales in New Mexico, Kansas, and Oklahoma. However, Bernhardt should heed the call of Coloradans, and Westerners more broadly, to manage our public lands for all Americans, not just his former oil and gas industry clients.