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Public land advocates protest growing influence of oil and gas

Public-land advocates protested once again last week after the Trump administration extended the terms of two temporary directors of federal land agencies and continued to grant favors to the oil and gas industry, even as gas prices plummet.

Interior Secretary David Bernhart extended William Perry Pendley’s acting-director status at the Bureau of Land Management for at least one more month through May 5, again raising questions of the legality of keeping a person in the position for so long without confirmation of the U.S. Senate.

The Federal Vacancies Reform Act allows the president to appoint “acting” directors for no more than 210 days, but Pendley wasn’t designated as even an acting director. Originally assigned as “deputy director exercising the authority of a director” – a role normally assigned only during the changeover from one president to the next – Pendley has continued to skirt the law while Bernhardt ignores the duty of finding a permanent director.

Pendley was first appointed in July in spite of public outcry. As an attorney for the Colorado-based Mountain States Legal Foundation, Pendley has regularly sued the BLM and has publically stated that he opposes federal retention of public land.

This is the third extension of Pendley’s temporary position. The last one occurred in December and was supposed to last three months.

“The cronyism, corruption and lack of leadership pervasive in the Trump administration is glaringly obvious during this growing crisis, and it is exactly why the U.S. Constitution requires Senate confirmable officials in these critical positions,” said Jayson O’Neill, director of the Whitefish-based Western Values Project, in a statement.

“The irony is, because of the current pandemic, this is the first time during Trump’s presidency that invoking the Federal Vacancies Reform Act may actually be justified.”

Meanwhile, the Montana Wilderness Association called on Montana’s junior senator to demand a confirmation hearing for Pendley.

“It’s well past time for Senator (Steve) Daines to finally stand up for his constituents and speak out against an acting BLM director who is selling out public lands hand-over-fist to oil and gas companies and ensuring they pay next to nothing on leases in Montana and elsewhere. That includes 95% of public lands in central Montana, lands that include some of the best big game habitat in North America,” said Kayje Booker, Montana Wilderness Association policy and advocacy director, in a statement.

Recent polling in Montana found sportsmen were concerned with Pendley and the BLM’s shift toward natural resource extraction. A March 16 poll sponsored by the Montana Wildlife Federation found nearly 80% of sportsmen say they’re either “very” or “somewhat” concerned about Pendley, even though almost 60% support President Trump.

“There’s a lot of concern amongst hunters of (Pendley’s) conflicts of interest, and his history of advocating for the privatization or transfer of public lands,” said Alec Underwood, Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman.

Bernhardt also extended the temporary authority of David Vela as acting director of the National Park Service. Vela has held the position since October but has recently been criticized for not closing all national parks once the COVID-19 pandemic started surging in the U.S.

Thousands of people crowded into national parks as the pandemic shut down businesses and cities, and national park superintendents were left on their own to make the call to close their parks. Yellowstone National Park closed on March 24 and Glacier National Park finally closed on March 27, a day after Gov. Steve Bullock issued his statewide stay-at-home order.

Grand Canyon National Park finally closed a few days ago, after it was reported that seven park employees had tested positive for COVID-19.

Vela was further criticized on Friday for appointing the Interior Dept. attorney, Edward Keable, to be the superintendent of the Grand Canyon National Park. Keable has worked with Bernhardt for many years, and the coalition doubts his objectivity related to a resort some are trying to develop at the gates of the Grand Cayon. Bernhardt’s former law firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, is lobbying for the development.

The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks said Keable has no experience in the national park service, so he shouldn’t be running such a popular park.

“On the heels of Secretary Bernhardt showing such disregard for NPS employees during the escalating pandemic by keeping parks open and putting their health and safety at risk, the decision to put someone with no national park experience in charge of a crown jewel of the National Park System is appalling,” said Phil Francis, Coalition chair, in a statement. “At this crucial time, when leadership is desperately needed, Grand Canyon needs an experienced and strong advocate, not a politically appointed superintendent.”

Finally on Friday, many groups criticized the president for holding a closed-door meeting with nine oil company executives to discuss how they could maximize the money they could get from the recent $2 trillion CARES Act Congress passed a week ago.

The companies and organizations included ExxonMobile, Phillips66, Chevron, Devon Energy, Energy Transfer Partners and the American Petroleum Institute. Devon Energy owned controversial leases in the Badger Two Medicine area until 2016 while Pendley is the attorney for Solonex, which still owns one lease in the area.

Energy Transfer Partners owns the Dakota Access Pipeline, which the Standing Rock Sioux have tried to oppose.

Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities based in Colorado, said oil companies are already getting or being considered for a number of benefits, including the reduction or suspension of royalties for oil and gas produced on public lands, extension of drilling leases and permits, and a reduction in environmental enforcement.

The Keystone XL pipeline was recently given the green light after a number of court challenges, and last week, TC Energy said it would soon begin construction across Montana regardless of shelter-in-place orders. The company is bringing in 100 workers who are supposed to self-quarantine for 14 days. But it’s uncertain how that might affect construction, according to the Glasgow Courier.

The US Department of Homeland Security said construction of the pipeline is deemed critical infrastructure,and therefore is allowed to continue as planned.

“The oil industry has spent the last decade racking up debt at a breathtaking pace and now they’re asking taxpayers to bail out their bad business practices. The oil industry’s wish list is shameless—rip off taxpayers and leave communities vulnerable to even more contamination. But with a former oil lobbyist in charge of the Interior Department, they will likely get what they want,” Rokala said. “Secretary Bernhardt has spent the coronavirus crisis auctioning off oil and gas leases and approving drilling permits, while leaving national park staff at risk.”

Meanwhile, though many offices are closed for the pandemic, the BLM continues to coordinate quarterly auctions of oil and gas leases on public lands. On March 26, the last auction locked up 5,200 acres for oil and gas in eastern Montana and North Dakota.

That runs counter to the wishes of a majority of Montana hunters. In the Montana Wildlife Federation poll, 60% of respondents said the amount of land prioritized for oil and gas should be decreased or remain the same.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.