Report: Interior Department meetings indicate oil and gas influence

A service truck drives past an oil well on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. (Andrew Cullen/Courthouse News file)

Some of Montana’s conservation groups oppose widespread oil and gas leasing on federal land, but a new report shows sales will probably continue through at least this year because oil and gas companies have the ear of the Trump administration.

On Wednesday, Public Citizen, a national consumer watchdog, released a report showing that since January 2017, top officials at the Department of the Interior have dedicated most of their meeting time to representatives of the natural resource industries, mainly oil and gas companies.

The Department of the Interior oversees the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. David Bernhardt, a former oil and agriculture industry lobbyist, took over from former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in early 2017 and has since made several decisions about public land favoring the oil and gas industry.

Using several Freedom of Information Act requests, Public Citizen got access to more than two years’ worth of calendar entries for Bernhardt and five top aides and found that one-third of almost 680 meetings with nongovernment entities involved oil and gas company representatives.

It’s not unusual for a variety of stakeholders to get an audience with DOI officials. It is concerning, however, when one sector has such a significant presence. And when oil and gas is combined with mining and related lobbying, they account for about 60% of the access to DOI decisionmakers.

Public Citizen hasn’t been able to get information on meetings for the past year, said Alan Zibel, research director of Public Citizen’s Corporate Presidency Project. That information could include the meetings involving William Perry Pendley, who started his job as BLM deputy director in July 2019 after advocating for the sell-off of public lands.

Public Citizen is still waiting for that information because the DOI often doesn’t respond to FOIA requests or creates long delays, which has prompted several lawsuits.

Out of the 225 DOI meetings with oil and gas representatives, the American Petroleum Institute got the most time – 13 meetings – followed by ConocoPhillips with 11 meetings and British Petroleum with eight. The Montana Petroleum Association even got in a few times in 2017.

The BLM resource management plans finalized earlier this year for the Missoula and Lewistown offices reflect the industries’ influence. The Lewistown plan in particular potentially opens up 95% of that office’s 650,000 acres to oil and gas leasing. That prompted the Montana Wilderness Association, the Montana Wildlife Federation and the National Wildlife Federation to push back in March, asking Bernhardt to restore the multiple-use mandate of the BLM.

The original plan written in 2016 would have set aside at least 100,000 acres for wilderness and wildlife.

In Montana, ConocoPhillips owns a refinery in Billings but does most of its drilling in the Bakken of North Dakota. British Petroleum doesn’t have much of an oil and gas presence in Montana, but it did buy the Atlantic Richfield Company’s land around Anaconda and Butte and thus is responsible for paying for the upper Clark Fork Superfund cleanup.

British Petroleum gained notoriety 10 years ago when its offshore oil drilling rig, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded, causing more than 4 million barrels of crude oil to blast unchecked into the Gulf of Mexico.

The American Petroleum Institute is involved in several issues. Most recently, it objected to an April 15 Montana federal court ruling that withdrew the Keystone XL pipeline permit to dredge streams or lakes, although other construction can continue. Federal district judge Brian Morris said the Army Corps did not adequately consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on risks to endangered species and habitat.

Public Citizen published Wednesday’s report out of concerns that oil and gas companies would get additional favors in congressional bills passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A few oil and gas companies already cashed in on $50 million of the money intended for small businesses. Now, the companies are asking the Trump administration to eliminate royalties they’re required to pay when they drill, some of which goes to the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Some oil and gas companies have struggled this year as the COVID-19 shutdown reduced U.S. demand and Russian and Arab companies ramped up production, causing the price per barrel to plummet. However, during past decades, U.S. oil companies have regularly pocketed huge annual profits. In 2008, ExxonMobile posted a profit of $45.2 billion and British Petroleum raked in $25 billion.

“With energy corporations mounting an intense lobbying campaign to receive emergency bailouts from the government, it is important to know who has the ear of the Trump administration,” said Alan Zibel, research director of Public Citizen’s Corporate Presidency Project. “Under Bernhardt, the Trump administration has been able to exert influence at the highest levels and has consistently favored industry over conservation groups.”

Looking again at the Public Citizen meeting tally, mining and coal companies got less time than oil and gas but still managed to meet 83 times with top DOI officials, including eight meetings with Peabody Energy, which owns the nation’s largest producing coal mine – the North Antelope Rochelle in Wyoming near the Montana border.

Conservation groups trailed the natural resource industries with 63 meetings.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.