ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Many government agencies have closed their doors under the federal shutdown, but at the Bureau of Land Management, it’s business as usual, at least for the oil and gas industry.
In Santa Fe, the BLM continues to prepare for two upcoming lease sales in March and June, and the agency is apparently still processing drilling applications for individual companies.
But environmental organizations say they’re locked out of the process, since the BLM has not publicly released information about what it’s doing, nor responded to inquiries.
“We don’t know what’s happening,” Ernie Atencio, New Mexico senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said on Friday. “Today is supposed to be the start of a 10-day protest period for the March lease sale, and we don’t even know if it’s going forward…They’re not being transparent or accountable to the public about what’s going on.”
That’s a problem because federal law requires the agency to carry out environmental reviews before it conducts lease sales, allowing the public to weigh in through open comment and protest periods, said Judy Calman, staff attorney with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.
“BLM has an obligation to comply with all federally required environmental reviews and to manage public lands sustainably,” Calman said in a statement. “Instead it has chosen to allow oil and gas companies to bypass regulations and accountability as it approves these sales behind closed doors.”
The Alliance and five other environmental groups asked the BLM to postpone all oil and gas lease sales and approval of drilling permits during the federal shutdown in a letter Wednesday to the agency’s state director, Tim Spisak. The letter questioned whether enough BLM staff is working during the shutdown to conduct environmental reviews.
In an email to the Journal, the agency did confirm that some employees in New Mexico have been asked to return to their jobs under a federal recall order for BLM workers nationwide to resume lease-sale and permit-processing activities.
“Up to 25 employees will be tasked both in the state office and several of the field offices over the coming weeks to complete their portions of the work/analysis/review needed to conduct the March and June oil and gas lease sales,” the statement said.
Funds from last year plus “specific cost recovery” will pay for the work, according to the statement.
It’s unclear if “cost recovery” means fees on oil companies. But environmentalists say such fees raise conflict-of-interest concerns about BLM’s ability to issue leases and permits impartially.
The agency did not say whether it’s still processing permits.
The Center for Western Priorities, however, says scores of permits in New Mexico and elsewhere continue to be processed based on documentation gleaned from four BLM data bases.
“During the shutdown, BLM has approved six drilling permits in New Mexico and accepted another 103 drilling permits, by far the most of any state,” Center Policy Director Jesse Prentice-Dunn said in an email to the Journal.