The drilling and mining industry wish list

Trump’s Interior Department is delivering policy favors at a breakneck pace

Jesse Prentice-Dunn
Jul 8 · 8 min read
Photo: Wyoming’s Jonah oil field | EcoFlight

Since taking office, the Trump administration has moved aggressively to roll back protections for public lands, water, and wildlife, enacting a policy agenda written by drilling and mining industries. A new analysis by the Center for Western Priorities finds the Interior Department has completed or taken action on at least 53 policy changes requested or supported by energy companies and associations as of June 2019. From rescinding major oil and gas safeguards to revising agency handbooks on wildlife protection, the staggering scope of these actions is the result of a concerted effort to rip out key conservation policies by the roots.

The Interior Department’s unabashedly pro-industry agenda is being set by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist with nearly two dozen former clients that have business before the agency. Prior to becoming Secretary, Bernhardt led the Trump administration’s Interior transition team, stocking the agency with industry-friendly appointees, before serving as the agency’s second-in-command. In testimony before Congress, Bernhardt has been clear that his priority is to expand drilling and mining on public lands and that he “hasn’t lost any sleep” over record carbon dioxide levels.

Shortly after President Trump’s inauguration, the Interior Department asked industry and the public to identify policies “that potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced resources,” with the goal of repealing or relaxing them. Corporations and trade associations, such as the National Mining Association, American Petroleum Institute, and ConocoPhillips, responded readily, submitting long wish lists of policies to be rolled back. Those same industries developed a cozy relationship with senior Interior officials, inviting them to speak at conferences and bringing lobbyists in for meetings. Armed with those policy requests, the Interior Department has moved full speed ahead to translate drilling and mining industry requests into official policy actions.

Methodology

The Center for Western Priorities analyzed policy requests of extractive companies, trade associations, and electric utilities, as identified by public comments submitted to, and litigation against, the Interior Department. The requests were then compared to policy actions taken by the agency since President Trump took office, assessing whether the policy action was complete, in progress, or identified for action. See the Appendix for links to sources and background documents.

Rolling out the red carpet for oil and gas drilling

From the American Petroleum Institute to Anadarko Petroleum, the oil and gas industry has asked for dozens of policy rollbacks, and the Interior Department has given them almost everything they’ve asked for. The Bureau of Land Management has eliminated regulations to increase the safety and transparency of fracking operations on public lands and gutted a program to reduce methane waste from drilling on public lands. Industry asks have led to numerous actions that don’t garner headlines — changing agency manuals and guidance to make land use plans and public lands leasing more favorable for oil and gas development.

Offshore drillers, led by the National Ocean Industries Association, a former client of Secretary Bernhardt, have been particularly successful at influencing Interior. The department has taken steps to open virtually the entire American coastline to drilling while rolling back safety regulations implemented after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and killing a major update to offshore air pollution regulations. The two major agencies responsible for offshore drilling oversight are also in the process of speeding approvals for seismic testing and rolling back safety regulations for drilling off the coast of Alaska.

Reducing protections for wildlife

In less than three years, the Interior Department has taken at least 21 policy actions that reduce wildlife protections at the behest of the oil, coal, and utility industries. Groups including the Independent Petroleum Association of America and Western Energy Alliance asked the agency to weaken Endangered Species Act regulations, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delivered, proposing three rule changes that would reduce protections for threatened species and limit protections for habitat. The agency has also accepted industry recommendations to focus on downlisting and de-listing at-risk animals and plants, both as a general policy and for specific species, such as the American burying beetle and Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

Oil and gas companies asked the department to weaken the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the agency’s top lawyer soon issued a legal opinion arguing that the industry could not be held liable for accidentally killing or injuring migratory birds in oil spills and toxic waste ponds. Many of those same companies lobbied to weaken landmark sage-grouse conservation plans and open key habitat for oil and gas drilling. The Bureau of Land Management obliged, opening millions of acres of key habitat to drilling and rolling back plans designed to help the imperiled bird recover.

Photo: The imperiled sage-grouse | Fish and Wildlife Service

Industry groups aggressively sought to roll back Obama-era policies requiring drilling and mining companies to offset impacts to wildlife with offsite conservation efforts for a “net conservation gain.” In response, the Interior Department has eliminated almost every wildlife mitigation policy identified by the industry, from overarching Fish and Wildlife Service policies down to Bureau of Land Management guidance manuals.

Expanding mining on public lands

The Interior Department is increasingly focusing on rolling back policies identified by mining companies. The agency has reopened loopholes allowing coal companies to skirt royalty payments for coal mined on public lands and lifted a moratorium on new coal leasing. Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke oversaw the dramatic reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, opening vast swaths of land for uranium and coal mining.

Early in the Trump administration, the National Mining Association submitted a list of 15 specific policy rollbacks, and the Interior Department has taken action on at least 10 of them. The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has revised regulations to reduce oversight of state mine permitting operations, rescinded a policy to protect taxpayers from mine cleanup costs, and eliminated guidance to enforce the Clean Water Act at surface mining sites.

Photo: Wyoming coal operations | Bureau of Land Management

Notably, the administration recently released a strategy to ramp up mining on public lands for dozens of minerals, including uranium, arsenic, and potash. As a part of that strategy, the Interior Department is considering lifting protections for critical landscapes across the West, including a moratorium on new uranium mining claims outside of Grand Canyon National Park. The National Mining Association previously sued to overturn the Grand Canyon protections, a lawsuit that was eventually defeated when the U.S. Supreme Court declined the case.

The well-oiled revolving door is swinging

Led by former oil and gas lobbyist David Bernhardt, the Interior Department is well stocked with drilling and mining interests. The agency’s top lawyer, acting Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, was a longtime advisor for the Koch brothers. Jorjani has since offered controversial legal opinions to weaken the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, advance mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, and greenlight a water pipeline in the California desert near Joshua Tree National Park.

Kathleen Benedetto, currently serving as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior, founded the Women’s Mining Coalition and has met extensively with mining interests, including leading opponents of sage-grouse conservation plans. The department has since weakened those sage-grouse conservation plans and opened millions of acres of key habitat to drilling and mining.

Scott Angelle was serving on the board of Sunoco Logistics Partners LP, an oil and gas pipeline company — a $380,000 per year job — when he left to become director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. Angelle has led a teardown of offshore drilling safety regulations and famously gave his cell phone number to oil and gas executives at an industry conference.

Many key Interior officials have already left the department to take lucrative jobs with the extractive industries that lobbied them. Downey Magallanes was the chief architect of the department’s plan to shrink national monuments while serving as deputy chief of staff.

Magallanes recently left the department to join the lobbying team at BP. Megan Bloomgren, Magallanes’ predecessor as deputy chief of staff, left her position to become Vice President of Communications at the American Petroleum Institute. Recently, the department’s top energy advisor, Vincent Devito, stepped down to become executive vice president at Cox Oil, an offshore drilling company.

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who enacted a raft of industry-friendly policies, was forced to resign amid ethical scandals in early 2019. In a matter of months, Zinke joined a D.C. lobbying firm and accepted a position on the board of U.S. Gold Corp., a mining company whose CEO cited Zinke’s “excellent relationship” with the Bureau of Land Management and the Interior Department.

Conclusion

In less than three years since President Trump took office, the Department of the Interior has transformed from an agency balancing multiple uses on our public lands — leasing some lands for development while conserving others for future generations — to a rubber stamp for the drilling and mining industries.

Oil, gas, and coal companies have taken advantage of the Interior Department’s open door, meeting extensively with senior officials, then hiring them when they leave public office. While the agency has grabbed periodic headlines for rolling back drilling and mining safeguards, a comprehensive review of policy actions shows the shocking extent to which Secretary Bernhardt has translated industry requests into Interior Department policy, large and small.

To read more about specific policies and administrative actions, view the report.


For more information, visit westernpriorities.org. Sign up for Look West to get daily public lands and energy news sent to your inbox, or subscribe to Go West, Young Podcast.

Westwise

Stories about public lands and the outdoors from the Center for Western Priorities

Jesse Prentice-Dunn

Written by

Policy Director | Center for Western Priorities | Denver, CO

Westwise

Westwise

Stories about public lands and the outdoors from the Center for Western Priorities