New data analysis shows that the government accepted 260 oil and gas drilling permit applications during the partial government shutdown last month, even as federal agencies suffered severe staffing shortages at all levels.
Those findings shed more light on the extent to which the Interior Department (DOI) favored the oil and gas industry over public lands protection during the longest government shutdown in history — a decision House Democrats now plan to probe.
The research published by the Colorado-based nonpartisan nonprofit Center for Western Priorities (CWP) was based on data published on government databases. The analysis found that of the 260 applications for drilling permits accepted during the shutdown across the country, 40 permits were approved by the shutdown’s end, along with 15 oil and gas leases. An additional 162 nominations of public lands parcels were accepted with the intent of leasing for oil and gas development.
These findings come at the same time as reporting by local New Mexico news outlet, Carlsbad Current Argus, which found the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)’s Carlsbad Field Office processed around 80 applications to drill on public lands between Dec. 22, 2018 and Jan. 25, 2019, when the shutdown ended.
In fact, drilling applications never ceased during the more than four weeks when the government remained partially closed according to the oil and gas shutdown tracker maintained by CWP. Meanwhile around 800,000 federal employees were furloughed or working without pay during the shutdown across agencies.
In a comment to ThinkProgress on Tuesday, CWP’s Jesse Prentice-Dunn emphasized that the findings reflect the priorities of Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who has spent his career working closely with the oil industry.
“The shutdown was a clear statement of… Bernhardt’s priorities—advance drilling no matter the cost,” said Prentice-Dunn.
Applications were consistently accepted by BLM throughout the shutdown, albeit at a slower pace, per CWP’s tracker. Beginning Jan. 7, drilling permits were approved as well, while oil and gas leases spiked on Jan. 12.
BLM shutdown contingency plans deemed many employees essential who work “on selected energy, minerals and other associated permit activities for which the bureau charges a processing fee.” This mostly impacted workers in New Mexico, a major drilling hub.
The prioritization of oil and gas during the shutdown came as public lands more broadly suffered. In a highly controversial move, DOI opted to leave many national parks and monuments open, something that has been avoided in previous extended shutdowns.
Despite being open, public services and staff were largely non-existent, allowing park visitors to roam freely in delicate and carefully-maintained parts of the country. Reports of vandalism, deaths, and damage mounted as the shutdown dragged on, impacting parks like Joshua Tree in California and the Great Smoky Mountains which straddle Tennessee and North Carolina.
“It is both telling and concerning that under Bernhardt the Interior Department cut legal corners to keep the lights on for oil and gas while leaving our parks open to looting and vandalism,” said Prentice-Dunn.
And while drilling on public lands endured throughout the shutdown, drilling offshore proved more controversial. Initial contingency plans for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) largely halted work on opening up virtually all U.S. waters to oil and gas drilling. But three weeks into the shutdown, BOEM recalled 40 employees to assist with the five-year Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) leasing program and with seismic permitting efforts, a move that came as offshore wind projects stalled.
That decision sparked backlash, as it coincided with South Carolina’s efforts to join a lawsuit opposing seismic drilling in the waters off its coast. The government argued it could not respond to the state’s request due to the shutdown, but a federal judge ruled on Jan. 18 that simultaneously moving forward on a controversial project while avoiding legal challenges created an unfair situation. From that point through the end of the shutdown, the government was barred from seismic permitting work.
House Democrats have moved to probe such decisions, looking into the Trump administration’s decisions not only to prioritize oil and gas drilling but also to keep the parks open.
In an email to ThinkProgress, Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Betty McCollum (DFL-MN) said that she would “certainly be looking into” not only the BOEM worker recall but also broader oil and gas efforts during the shutdown.
House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) has similarly looked to scrutinize the Trump administration’s shutdown actions. Both Grijalva and McCollum have overseen hearings aimed at addressing DOI’s decisions during that time and have requested that the Government Accountability Office conduct a review of the department’s shutdown conduct.