NEW ANALYSIS: As America fought coronavirus, Trump’s Interior Department rushed through dozens of environmental attacks

Apr 7, 2020

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt opened or closed at least 34 public comment periods despite widespread calls for a halt to rulemakings and major actions

APRIL 7, 2020

DENVER — A new analysis by the Center for Western Priorities finds that in the month after President Trump signed the first emergency coronavirus bill, the Interior Department took dozens of policy actions unrelated to COVID-19, moving ahead with unfettered oil and gas leasing, removing protections for endangered wildlife, and expanding mining operations across the country.

CWP’s analysis identified 57 separate actions taken by Interior Department agencies since March 6, when President Trump signed the first coronavirus emergency bill. Those 57 actions include 34 public comment periods that were opened or closed by the Interior Department despite numerous requests from local elected officials and members of Congress that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt suspend rulemakings during the pandemic.

“While the country was focused on slowing a global pandemic, Secretary Bernhardt did not lose sight of his singular mission to deliver favors for the oil, gas, and mining companies that paid his salary for years,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director at the Center for Western Priorities. “When you look at the audacious scope of what he was doing as the coronavirus crisis accelerated, it’s no wonder he was so blind to the risk that he created for America’s park rangers by refusing to close park gates.”

Since March 6, Interior finalized at least nine actions that will have lasting effects on public and tribal lands, including significant expansions of hardrock mining operations in Arizona and Nevada, and the revocation of tribal trust lands from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts.

The department also continued its efforts to undermine the Endangered Species Act, advancing policies that would reduce protections for the humpback chub fish and a Puerto Rican orchid, and eliminating a proposal that would have established protections for the bi-state sage-grouse.

In March, the Interior Department held seven oil and gas lease sales, despite a glut of oil production leading to the collapse of global oil prices. Interior also announced a coal lease sale in Colorado that is scheduled for April, despite falling coal production and mine closures due to the risk of COVID-19 and low demand.

The agency also paved the way for a private mining road to be built through Gates of the Arctic National Preserve in Alaska. Secretary Bernhardt’s former firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, has lobbied the Interior Department to approve the project on behalf of a Canadian mining corporation.

The majority of Interior Department actions taken during the coronavirus pandemic (35 to date) have come from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency which has not had a Senate-confirmed director for the entirety of the Trump administration. On April 3, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed an order giving the acting head of the agency, William Perry Pendley, an additional 30 days at the top of BLM.

View or download the complete analysis

In addition to the 34 public comment periods opened or closed since March 6, Secretary Bernhardt has refused to extend several key comment periods that opened just prior to the president’s signature on the first coronavirus bill. This includes the controversial plan to allow additional drilling near New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historic Park. New Mexico’s congressional delegation and conservation groups have urged Bernhardt to extend the window for public comment, which opened on February 28th.

The Bureau of Land Management did extend one comment period on Monday, giving the public until May 21st to comment on six draft environmental impact statements that affect sage-grouse habitat across the West.

In addition to the 57 actions taken by the Interior Department, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) also continued to hold meetings with oil and gas companies regarding future rulemakings by the Interior Department. On March 18, OMB and Interior officials met with representatives of Shell, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and the American Petroleum Institute regarding a proposed rule on how oil, gas, and coal companies are allowed to value products extracted from public land when paying royalties to taxpayers. The Trump administration in 2017 attempted to repeal an Obama-era rule that closed a loophole allowing companies to essentially sell coal to themselves at below-market prices, but that repeal was blocked by the courts.

CWP’s analysis will be updated with future Interior Department actions. It excludes small rulemakings with limited local impact, such as setting fees for camping or cabin rentals.