(Courthouse News) A national nonprofit legal organization claimed in federal court Tuesday that several western states, including Montana, will suffer financially while coal, oil and gas industries will unfairly benefit from the actions of the Interior Department’s Royalty Policy Committee.
Democracy Forward filed a lawsuit against the Interior Department in U.S. District Court in Montana on behalf of the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), stating that the committee designed to recommend federal policies regarding the leasing and regulation of resources on both private and public lands helps “extractive industries avoid paying a fair value to American’s taxpayers for the privilege of extracting taxpayer-owned coal, oil, and gas.”
The lawsuit claims the committee violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act by unfairly stacking its membership with industry members, holding secret meetings and not giving adequate notice for public participation.
In a press release, Democracy Forward Executive Director Anne Harkavy said, “Secretary [Ryan] Zinke is breaking the law in order to barter off America’s public resources to his corporate cronies and shield them from paying a fair value for the privilege.”
The committee, chaired by Vincent DeVito, made recommendations and revisions “fulfilling the wish list” of special interests, according to the complaint, and won’t pursue policies to compensate the public for “hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue wasted” through natural gas leaks, low royalties and non-competitive lease bidding.
The complaint claims these changes will cause loss of income to Montana and other states, which rely on royalties for general funds, public schools and infrastructure, and will have an adverse environmental impact on land used by the general public.
In a statement issued by plaintiffs, WORC board member and rancher Steve Charter said, “These companies can’t just take and take from the areas they mine and drill. At the very least, they’ve got to pay the public a fair return for earning a profit on publicly-owned minerals.”
The committee charter calls for a balanced membership, but the lawsuit states that 11 of 12 members representing mineral or energy stakeholders have experience with extractive industries, and half of the six members representing academia and public interest work for these industries. Two of the public interest representatives do not have voting rights.
According to the complaint, none of the members have publicly disclosed interests in Bureau of Land Management-administered land and at least seven work for companies such as Chevron, Shell and Conoco-Phillips.
Although the committee must give thirty days notice for all meetings to media and the public, it “has operated to exclude public participation” by giving less notice, according to the lawsuit, and its subcommittee and working group meetings have not been opened to the public or the media.
The lawsuit asks the court to bar the committee from continuing operations or to require the committee to operate in a lawful manner.
The Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management did not immediately respond to a request for a comment Tuesday evening.