As the government shutdown heads toward a second month, the Trump administration insists on pushing its reckless “energy dominance” agenda, continuing to process oil and gas permits while letting our national parks be pillaged.
It’s clear that President Trump does not care if hard-working Americans go without paychecks, if families lack access to the services they rely on that are provided by the federal government, or if iconic natural resources are permanently damaged.
To add insult to injury, Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is working during the shutdown to open more of our public lands to oil and gas development, even as critical government services remain inaccessible to everyday Americans.
The American Petroleum Institute’s CEO spoke honestly when he recently said, “To this point, we have not seen any major effects of the shutdown on our industry.”
Instead of righting the ship at the Department of the Interior following Ryan Zinke’s scandal-ridden tenure, Acting Secretary Bernhardt is doubling down on the culture of corruption at the agency by quietly designating 800 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employees, who are responsible for handling energy-related matters, as “essential” during the shutdown.
Since the shutdown began in December, 39 oil and gas permits (and counting) have been accepted and published in Alaska, North Dakota, New Mexico and Oklahoma. And BLM plans to resume permitting in the oil and gas-rich state of Wyoming.
Another 40 employees at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management have been tasked with facilitating offshore oil drilling and working on a long-term plan to sell off more coastal drilling rights.
At the same time, the public is left out in the cold. Bernhardt’s agencies refuse to answer questions from reporters or the public, blaming the shutdown. Interior Department websites where the public could submit comments on proposals to change federal policy have been down or missing current information for weeks.
Amidst all this, Bernhardt quietly announced plans to undermine the Freedom of Information Act, severely limiting the ability of journalists and the public to access public records that, by law, they have every right to read.
Interior is also ignoring its treaty obligations to tribal nations, refusing to provide basic health services to Native Americans.
Right now, President Trump’s one and only priority should be reopening the government and restoring the public’s access to services provided by federal agencies. There is no reason for oil and gas permitting and leasing to continue while the rest of the government is shut down.
If the administration’s priorities weren’t clear before, it’s even more apparent now that they are out of step with what is best for the country and our public lands.
Former Interior Department official Kate Kelly recently outlined a half-dozen laws Acting Secretary Bernhardt appears to be violating during the shutdown, including the Organic Act that established the national park system, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Antideficiency Act, which limits how cabinet secretaries can spend money during a government shutdown.
Acting Secretary Bernhardt must immediately change course and follow the law. He should listen to experts at groups like the National Parks Conservation Association, who have warned him that diverting funds to keep parks partially open is both illegal and irresponsible.
Bernhardt should commit to creating more transparency at Interior by extending public comment periods after the shutdown ends and calling off his attempt to limit public records requests.
The American people expect leaders who protect our public lands for the enjoyment of future generations and deserve a government that works for all of us — not just for the oil and gas industry.
Jennifer Rokala is the executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, a public lands advocacy group based in Denver. Twitter: @WstrnPriorities
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