Statement: Zinke and Bernhardt push federally mandated sage-grouse overhaul for oil, gas and mining industries

Released drafts undermine historic deal in favor of special interests

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued draft environmental impact statements (DEIS) to federally mandate an overhaul of state-level sage-grouse habitat management plans. The mandate was the result of a Secretarial Order signed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and spearhead by Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt.

Statement by Western Values Project Deputy Director Jayson O’Neill:

One thing that has been abundantly clear since the start of this rushed overhaul is that the books were cooked for oil, gas and mining industries from the get-go and everyone else just received lip service. Secretary Zinke is undermining the largest cooperative landscape-scale conservation plan in history by ignoring public sentiment and science, which will create a cloud of uncertainty for businesses and communities in the rural West.

This federally mandated overhaul is ripe with special interest favors and conflicts of interest that will not only put the iconic Western bird at risk but will also jeopardize public access, 350 plus other wildlife species and the burgeoning outdoor economy. This is nothing short of an industry wishlist ushered through by an ex-lobbyist turned deputy secretary whose clients now stand to benefit.”


Background on sage-grouse overhaul:

After years of work and cooperation by federal agencies, Western states and diverse stakeholders, a plan was released in 2015 to conserve habitat for the greater sage-grouse to avoid listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act. The Fish and Wildlife Service specifically cited habitat preservation as the reason for removing the bird from consideration.

Western Governors have met with Secretary Zinke and Deputy Secretary Bernhardt about the imperiled bird; many have urged them not to make wholesale changes to the plans.

A Western Values Project (WVP) analysis of a memo by Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas lobbyist association, found that Secretary Zinke’s handpicked review team adopted 13 of their 15 recommendations. A side-by-side comparison, available here, highlights the coordination.

Oil and gas leaseholders in sagebrush habitat have ties to Zinke, political staff and lobby group Western Energy Alliance that potentially stand to benefit from the overhaul. Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, directed by Zinke to implement the changes, was the former lobbyist for Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, and was deeply involved in lobbying Interior on energy and environmental issues. Before working at Interior, Bernhardt’s clients included several oil and gas corporations and energy associations, including the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA).

In March, IPAA signed onto a “thank you” letter to Bernhardt for his actions “that rescinded and revised mitigation policies that far exceeded statutory authority.” The letter references issues related to Bernhardt’s role in the sage-grouse review as well as other activity that his former client appears to benefit from.

BLM issued Instructional Memorandum to state offices that de-prioritized sage-grouse habitat from consideration when leasing oil and gas parcels on public lands. Another directive issued limited the public comment period on leasing decisions from 30 to 10 days among other special interest favors. Two lawsuits were recently filed over BLM oil and gas leases in sage-grouse habitat.

Listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act would result in numerous lawsuits from groups on both sides of the issue, and prohibit development across a wide swath of public land. A report released by WVP found that sagebrush habitat supports $1 billion in outdoor recreation economic activity, including camping, hiking and hunting.

Also published on Medium.

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