DOI ‘expediting’ Chaco drilling proposal during pandemic

A proposal that would increase oil and gas drilling in the Greater Chaco region of northwest New Mexico is one of a long list of energy projects that are being “expedited” by the U.S. Department of Interior during the COVID-19 pandemic, under the direction of the Trump Administration. 

The information was revealed in a letter dated July 15 from the DOI Deputy Secretary Katharine MacGregor and obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and provided to NM Political Report. 

The revelation comes as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) face sharp criticism from state government officials, congressional lawmakers and local communities in the northwest portion of the state for the agencies’ handling of the public comment period associated with the proposal, conducted amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

‘Hollow’ promise of public engagement

The Farmington field office of the BLM is in the midst of amending the area’s resource management plan, which governs oil and gas development on BLM lands. BLM officials have been working on the proposal, referred to as the Mancos-Gallup RMPA, for years, but in late February—just days before the COVID-19 pandemic hit New Mexico—the BLM released a draft Environmental Impact Statement for the plan, which triggered a 60-day public comment period. The proposal could enable up to 3,000 new oil and gas wells to be drilled in the area. 

Communities in northwestern New Mexico, including the Navajo Nation, were hit hard and fast by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. As cases of COVID-19 surged in the area, tribal governments and local community groups in the Greater Chaco region requested the BLM extend the public comment period during the public health emergency. That call was echoed by the state government, the congressional delegation, and tribal leaders.

Udall: Interior Department should be ‘center’ of U.S. climate change response

U.S. Sen.Tom Udall said the U.S. Department of the Interior could play a pivotal role in the country’s response to climate change during an August 15 webinar hosted by conservation advocacy group WildEarth Guardians. “The Interior Department should be right at the center of climate, endangered ecosystems, taking better care of the land, coming up with a good land ethic and dealing with the diversity issues and the environmental justice issues,” Udall told WildEarth Guardians executive director John Horning. “The next president is going to want to do something about climate, the Interior Department is going to be at the center of that.”

Udall’s father, Stewart Udall, served as Secretary of the Interior under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Udall referenced his father’s work at the Interior, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, protecting species before the Endangered Species Act became law, and supporting diversity amid the Interior Department’s ranks. 

RELATED: Land and Water Conservation Fund one step closer to securing full funding after Senate passage

He lamented the recent exodus of career employees at the department under the Trump administration, which he referred to as “a hollowing out” of the department. 

“This is the saddest part. One of the things that my father used to talk about was what a treasure the Interior Department career employees are.

Trump administration transfers land to Army to build border wall

The Trump administration announced Thursday it transferred  560 acres of land administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior to the U.S. Army to pave the way for the construction of a border wall between the United States and Mexico—including some land in New Mexico. The land in New Mexico includes a 170 acre parcel that includes parts of Luna and Hidalgo counties for “replacement of existing vehicle barrier with pedestrian barrier.” An additional 43 acres in Hidalgo County is slated for “construction of new primary and secondary pedestrian barriers.”

The announcement by U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said the transfer would allow the construction of about 70 miles of border barriers. 

The move comes after the Trump administration diverted $3.6 billion in funding for military projects to fund the controversial border wall. “Absent this action, national security and natural resource values will be lost,” Bernhardt said. “The impacts of this crisis are vast and must be aggressively addressed with extraordinary measures.”

Of the $3.6 billion in diverted military funds, $125 million comes from projects slated for New Mexico, at Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range. Thursday’s move drew immediate condemnation from members of New Mexico’s federal delegation.

Zinke leaves unfinished business at the Interior Department

On the second day of 2019, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tweeted out his resignation letter to President Donald Trump. After less than two years in office, he claimed to have “restored public lands ‘for the benefit & enjoyment of the people,’ improved public access & shall never be held hostage again for our energy needs.”

That appears to be Zinke’s view of the legacy his abbreviated tenure will leave on the Interior Department’s more than 500 million acres of land and roughly 70,000 employees. Critics might interpret his garbled syntax as a confession: that he turned over public land to industry — pushing oil and gas leases in sensitive habitat, rescinding environmental protections and shrinking national monuments. But what, really, did Zinke accomplish? This story originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission.

Ryan Zinke to step down as Interior secretary

Ryan Zinke will step down from his post as Interior secretary, President Donald Trump announced Saturday. “Secretary of the Interior @RyanZinke will be leaving the Administration at the end of the year after having served for a period of almost two years,” Trump wrote in a tweet. In a second tweet, Trump said he plans to announce a replacement in the coming days. In a resignation letter obtained by the Associated Press, Zinke attributed his departure to “vicious and politically motivated attacks.”

Zinke, a former Montana congressman and Navy SEAL, oversaw much of the Trump administration’s energy dominance agenda, including the ramp up of public lands oil and gas leasing and the rollback of environmental protections. The Interior Department includes the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, which together manage 330 million acres of public lands, mostly in the West. Under Zinke, the Interior Department opened up large swaths of the West to oil and gas drilling, rolled back a suite of climate change policies, and abandoned a number of collaborative land management agreements spearheaded by the department under former President Barack Obama. Zinke announced his intention to rewrite one such plan, on sage grouse protections, early in his tenure.

New Mexico bears the brunt of D.C.’s environment decisions

Given the fire hose of news from Washington, D.C. every day, New Mexicans can be forgiven if they miss stories about environmental overhauls from the White House and funding mishaps in Congress. But ignorance isn’t bliss when it comes to climate-changing methane emissions, less money for public lands and parks or the intergenerational impacts of mercury exposure. At NM Political Report, we’re continuing to track the federal changes that affect New Mexicans. Here are a few of the most important issues that popped up recently. Udall: Climate change ‘moral test of our age’
At the end of last month, Congress let the Land and Water Conservation Fund lapse.

The country’s busiest oil and gas office has a plan for more drilling

If there is one swath of land that holds the most promise for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s vision for energy dominance, it might be southeast New Mexico. The 6-million acre region includes part of the Permian Basin, which stretches into west Texas and is expected to produce more than any other nation except Saudi Arabia by 2023. In August, the Bureau of Land Management released a 1,500-page draft of a new management plan for the New Mexico side of the basin that will determine how its resources will be used for the next 20 years and beyond. The BLM’s Carlsbad field office, which oversees this three-county region, is the busiest in the nation for oil and gas drilling. It’s also a landscape of deserts, grasslands, small mountain ranges and spectacular underground caves.

Top Interior officials ordered parks to end science policy, emails show

As deputy director of the National Park Service, Michael Reynolds played a key role in developing a sweeping new vision for managing national parks. The new policy, enacted in the final weeks of the Obama administration, elevated the role that science played in decision-making and emphasized that parks should take precautionary steps to protect natural and historic treasures. But eight months later, as the first acting director of the Park Service under President Donald Trump, Reynolds rescinded this policy, known as Director’s Order 100. Newly released documents suggest that top Interior Department officials intervened, ordering Reynolds to rescind it. A memo addressed to Reynolds states: “Pursuant to direction from (Interior) Secretary (Ryan) Zinke, I hereby instruct you to rescind Director’s Order #100.”

Reynolds, now the superintendent of Yosemite National Park, did not respond to requests for an interview.

New EPA head has long history of ties to mining interests

Andrew Wheeler, a former coal and uranium mining lobbyist, has been named the acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, after the abrupt resignation of Scott Pruitt. Pruitt announced his decision on Thursday, amid a series of ethics investigations into his improper use of taxpayer money and penchant for using employees to conduct personal errands. Wheeler has made a career out of representing fossil fuel interests and rolling back environmental regulations. His relationships with senior officials from the Department of Interior and the Department of Energy, his lobbying background and deep ties to polluting industries have some people worried that his influence could extend beyond the parameters of the EPA. This story originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission.

Zinke grilled about edited science report

This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast. House Democrats grilled Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke this week about National Park Service officials deleting all references to the human cause of climate change in drafts of a long-awaited report. Zinke told a House Appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday that he and other political appointees at the Interior Department, which oversees the Park Service, have not seen the draft. And he repeated a vow that he will not censor scientific reports.