Conservation or Coal? The Bureau of Land Management’s Shifting Priorities

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People in the conservation community were alarmed last week when the Bureau of Land Management, an agency in the Department of Interior, changed its website header last week from a photo of a family in the outdoors to a giant wall of coal. The website’s new look seemed to signal a resource-focused shift in priorities for the Bureau.

The aesthetic change to the website didn’t last (currently there’s a picture of a man fly-fishing in a pristine landscape on BLM.gov), but coal, oil, and gas development is clearly on the mind of the BLM. In a document leaked to E&E News, the Trump administration compiled a “priority list” of projects for the BLM, including: “Make additional lands available for energy development”; “streamline Federal coal leasing and permitting”; and “streamline oil and gas leasing and permitting.” There are a few environment-friendly edicts, such as expanding wildlife conservation, but there’s a clear premium on energy development. Officials told E&E News that it was not handed down from Secretary Ryan Zinke himself, but created by BLM employees.

In response, Congressman Raúl Grijalva sent a letter to Michael Nedd, the acting director of the BLM, outlining his concern. “The recent publication of internal [BLM] strategy and communications documents has provided some disappointing insight into the intended focus of the BLM during the current administration,” Grijalva wrote. “The “priority work” listed for the BLM indicates a return to the philosophy of the George W. Bush Administration, which prioritized leasing and permitting for oil, gas, and coal above all other uses, and led to a situation where the BLM was unable to adequately meet its responsibility to be a good steward of our public lands.”

Grijalva cited a Government Accountability Office (GAO) finding from 2005 that the BLM’s “ability to meet its environmental mitigation responsibilities for oil and gas development has been lessened by a dramatic increase in oil and gas operations on federal lands over the past 6 years.” During the Bush era, the number of drilling permits that the BLM issued tripled from 1,803 to 6,399. 

That’s not to say the previous administration’s BLM was an enemy of coal, oil, and gas. Under Obama, the BLM set aside 2.5 times more land to oil and gas drilling than for preservation and conservation. Obama’s BLM issued 3,770 oil and gas drilling permits by 2013, compared with 6,617 in 2008 under Bush.

Environmentalists fear a shift toward Bush-era levels of permitting. “The writing is literally on BLM’s website wall,” says Sarah McMillen, senior attorney at Wild Earth Guardians. “This administration will focus on increasing profits for coal companies rather than making any effort to stem the tide of climate change or protect our public lands from the rampant destruction that fossil fuel development leaves in its wake.”