Report shows ‘staggering’ scope of environmental rollbacks by Trump administration

Among dozens of other rollbacks, the Department of Interior has weakened protections for sage grouse. (Bob Wick/BLM)

The Trump administration has rolled back more than 50 environmental protections specifically at the request of the energy industry, according to a new report. The effect on public land and wildlife could last for some time.

On Monday, the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities released a report identifying 53 policies that energy and mining industries have asked the Department of the Interior to change related to clean water, clean air, endangered species, safety and reporting.

So far, the DOI – first under former Secretary Ryan Zinke and now under Secretary David Bernhardt – has changed 36 of those policies, with 12 still under consideration.

For example, the DOI has weakened sage grouse conservation plans to allow more oil and gas drilling, rescinded policies requiring mining companies to have bonds for clean-up, and changed rules related to injuring or killing endangered species. And laws requiring public input on federal actions are always being questioned.

“This report lays out the staggering scope of the Trump administration’s war on our public lands, climate, and wildlife,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director at the Center for Western Priorities, in a statement. “From rescinding major oil and gas safeguards to weakening landmark wildlife protection laws, Interior Secretary Bernhardt has pulled out all the stops to deliver policy favors for his former clients in the drilling and mining industries.”

In June 2017, the Trump administration requested public input on which regulations and policies should be repealed, replaced or modified.

To identify the affected policies, the Center for Western Priorities analyzed industry policy requests in public comments submitted to, and in litigation against, the Interior Department. The requests were then compared to policy actions taken since Trump took office.

Among the dozens of energy companies and industry organizations that responded, two Montana organizations chimed in, citing nine policies they wanted removed. The Montana Petroleum Association and the Treasure State Resources Association of Montana joined with the Western Energy Alliance, the American Petroleum Institute and others to oppose sage grouse protections, wildlife and habitat mitigation, and voluntary conservation of at-risk species. They also required that economic factors outweigh species protection.

The effect of industry pressure to open up more federal public land to resource extraction with less oversight has already been evident in Montana.

In May 2018, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employees met in Billings with representatives from the mining and petroleum industries and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to discuss providing incentives for new copper smelters and coal fired-power plants and loosening certain regulations.

In a related May 2017 email, the Independent Petroleum Association of America asked the EPA not to regulate the management of oil and gas production wastes, saying the agency should leave it to the states.

Even before Trump was elected, the Bureau of Land Management began identifying more parcels in Montana to be leased to oil and gas companies as the Bakken started to play out.

A review of Montana-Dakota BLM documents shows that few leases were for sale in Montana prior to October 2016. Between 2013 and 2016, many auctions had no Montana leases while a few sales listed a handful. Since 2017, the Montana-Dakotas BLM has put hundreds of thousands of acres up for lease annually in Montana.

The BLM website says the sales are “in keeping with the Administration’s goal of promoting American’s energy independence.” But not all Montanans like the BLM leasing so much federal land to energy companies.

When the BLM offered 223 parcels for lease in Montana a year ago, a Great Falls U.S. district court told the BLM it had to conduct an environmental analysis based on a challenge of coal leases by the Western Organization of Resource Councils. Meanwhile, two previous lease auctions were on hold due to another lawsuit citing possible groundwater contamination and increased methane emissions if drilling occurred.

The BLM was forced to remove 20 parcels that were in sage grouse management areas from the December 2018 lease sale due to a court injunction.

Still, the BLM is forging ahead. The most recent sale in March offered 302 parcels encompassing 166,000 acres in Montana, although only 96 parcels were leased.

A number of organizations, including Whitefish-based Western Values Project, question Bernhardt’s motives because he used to be a lobbyist for the oil industry. So they weren’t surprised when Bernhardt removed sage grouse protections.

In May, in keeping with the DOI’s industry emphasis, the BLM replaced its original conservation-focused mission statement with one that emphasizes the economic value of public land.

Having watched all these changes occur, some groups are worried about what will become of BLM land in Montana, particularly after the agency released three resource management plans about a month ago that emphasize resource extraction.

The Montana Wilderness Association and hunters’ groups such as the Hellgate Hunters and Anglers oppose BLM plans to reduce the amount of wild areas and wildlife habitat in favor of economic activities such as logging and drilling.

However, while they can add submit their comments to the BLM, the administration is not asking them which policies they want to change.

“It is laughable that this administration would tout their environmental record after doing everything in their power to roll back public health and wildlife protections at the behest of drilling and mining companies,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, Center for Western Priorities policy director.