Career Feds Gone Wild: BLM and APD Approvals?

From the Farmington Daily Times- part of a good article outlining the approval process

As I predicted, when Republicans are in power, things some ENGO’s (or perhaps PENGOs, for Partisanly inclined ENGOs) don’t like are blamed on evil Republicans.  And folks are very concerned about impacts to career feds, the innocuous victims of bad political appointees. But when D’s are in power, the identical activities can be blamed on the career feds. These two concepts seem to conflict a bit, but perhaps I’m the only person who notices?  An interesting example is this piece by Jonathan Thompson who runs the “Land Desk”- lots of interesting and valuable articles there, but perhaps not this one.

Stepping back, we at TSW investigated on our own the reason for increased approved APD’s during the Biden Admin (held up by some as “Biden isn’t doing enough.”)

Rebecca Watson had some ideas in this comment here , and here’s what a BLM person from State X told me: “there was a big surge in State X and I think there were a variety of reasons for that including the election results, companies getting pre-positioned for any resultant post pandemic oil price increase and finally, companies catching up on activities that have a big field work component that were impacted by folks minimizing group interactions, working from home, etc..”

What I find interesting about stories I’ve read that mention this is that the increase is used as a talking point to make the case “not doing enough” (a political push toward COP26) and the other side of the story is not being told. So much of what I read is not “news” in the traditional sense of 1) telling what’s happening and 2) trying to understand why (note, this article is not news, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell what is and should be held to those standards).

And even while leasing was paused, the BLM continued to hand out drilling permits at a feverish pace. Since Biden’s inauguration, the agency has issued the following tally of approvals:

  • California: 56 (all by the Bakersfield Field Office)
  • Alaska: 6
  • Colorado: 15 (Royal Gorge, Tres Rios, and White River Field Offices)
  • New Mexico: 1,372 (1,275 in the Carlsbad Field Office, or Permian Basin; 94 in the Farmington Field Office, or San Juan Basin)
  • Utah: 183 (170 in Vernal Field Office with the rest in Moab and Price)
  • Wyoming: 693 (376 in Buffalo Field Office; 198 in Casper Field Office; 74 in the Pinedale Field Office)

That’s a lot of drilling permits, making Trump’s energy dominance look a little flaccid, at best. I had a conversation with a colleague about this phenomenon recently. He argued that the BLM had no choice but to issue the permits, since the oil and gas companies were vested with private property rights when they acquired the leases. Both industry and field office managers make the same argument, parroting the ideology of the Wise Use movement of the 1990s, but it’s mostly bogus. Grazing leases and oil and gas leases are on public land, and they do not confer private property rights to anyone. If that was the case, then why bother with the permitting process? Why not just offer the drilling permits with the lease?

At the same time, it’s not Biden himself, or even Haaland, who is handing out the drilling permits. It’s the field office managers, who tend to operate how they choose, regardless of who’s in the Oval Office.

(My bold) Mr.Thompson thinks the validity of lease sales is “bogus” but having sat through innumerable meetings with Interior Solicitors and USDA OGC on exactly this issue, enthusiatically trying to get the USG out of leases on the Thompson Divide, I’d say.. not. I don’t know if Mr. Thompson believes this about BLM managers, or whether this is another polemical throw-away line.

5 thoughts on “Career Feds Gone Wild: BLM and APD Approvals?”

  1. Since I became involved in federal land use policy, I have been increasingly astonished at how much power individual unelected bureaucrats have over public land decisions. In my experience with travel management, what decisions are made is pretty much up to the whims of local land management officials, whether BLM field office managers, Forest Service District Rangers, Forest Supervisors, etc.

    Since NEPA, the APA, and other rules like the travel management rule are largely a procedural, they can be used to justify pretty much any decision local officials want to make. These processes have the veneer of science, but ultimately land managers know how to manipulate the numbers to get the result they want. What that result is seems to be largely up to whatever personal agendas they or their superiors have.

    I don’t know for sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing overall (most interest groups probably like it when the local managers view their particular cause or activity favorably, and hate it when they don’t). But it surprises me how our democratic society has left so many important decisions in the management of our public lands to the personal whims and agendas of unaccountable non-elected officials.

    • Do you propose that Congress vote on travel management decisions? Elected officials can’t do everything. We elected a president and people who work for him make decisions they generally know align with administration priorities. I’m not sure how else it could work.

      • Honestly I’m not sure how it could work either. I do think Congress should be more involved in public land management and administrative law in general. Most major rulemakings (like the Roadless Rule or Travel Management Rule for instance) really should have been Congressional legislation.

        I agree agencies should still be in charge of making detailed management plans like travel plans, but I wish there was a way to introduce some democratic accountability into those processes as well, perhaps by making local administrative positions like regional foresters, forest supervisors, district rangers, BLM state directors and field office directors, etc. elected positions. I don’t know how well that would actually work in practice, but in theory I think that could boost local influence over federal land management and reduce the power and regulatory capture of national environmental organizations.

  2. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has released the outline for a restructured Bureau of Land Management promising to return its main headquarters to DC while increasing its role in the Mountain West by improving a demoralized Grand Junction, Colorado presence.

    The US Senate has yet to confirm President Biden’s nominee for a BLM Director who will focus on recreation, conservation and restoration while healing the wounds left by the extractive and livestock industries by connecting the CM Russell Wildlife Refuge in Montana along the Missouri River to Oacoma, South Dakota combined with wildlife corridors from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon in the north and south to the Pecos River through Nebraska, eastern Colorado, western Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

    Clear the second growth conifers and eastern red cedar then restore aspen habitat, prescribe burns, begin extensive Pleistocene rewilding using bison and cervids, empower tribes, lease private land for wildlife corridors, turn feral horses from BLM pastures onto other public land to control exotic grasses and buy out the welfare ranchers Tony Dean warned us about.

  3. The Forest Service says. “This is who we are.”
    The Forest Service is unique in having a centralized
    global mission, as well as systems and supports
    that create reliability and consistency across the
    agency. Our culture also empowers individuals to
    make choices and decisions based on what they know
    about the places and communities in their care.”

    I also don’t think the concept of “regulatory capture” applies here. Unless you can characterize the public that is concerned about its environment as “industries or interests they (the Forest Service) are charged with regulating.” This public wants more regulation.

    To Sharon’s point about which side the career employees are on, I tend to side with Randal O’Toole’s argument that it’s all about the budget, and the less you sell or oversee or otherwise do, the less money you get. If that’s the agency’s measure of success, passive management or management of passive uses like dispersed recreation and wilderness are not going to carry a lot of weight compared to active management. Environmental organizations help counter that tilt to the playing field.


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