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How The Energy Industry’s Wish List Became The Interior Department’s To-Do List

An Interior Department advisory group relied on a top energy industry lobbyist to help draft a list of potential regulatory rollbacks, documents obtained by HuffPost show.

At least one suggestion ― reducing the role that local environmental concerns play in leasing federal lands for oil and gas development ― quickly became a reality.

The Onshore Work Group, charged with recommending how Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ought to regulate federal lands available for fossil fuel development, already has deep ties to the energy industry. Its chair is Kathleen Sgamma, the president of the oil and gas industry group Western Energy Alliance and a vocal proponent of tearing down many Obama-era environmental protections.

But metadata from the working group’s first draft of recommendations further link the Interior Department with the industry it is tasked with regulating. According to the metadata, Tripp Parks, the Western Energy Alliance’s head of government affairs, was the initial author of the document.

The working group belongs to a growing cadre of industry-friendly advisory bodies Zinke has set up to guide his agenda. In November, he assembled a wildlife conservation advisory group dominated by people with links to trophy hunting. Most members of a public lands advisory group have connections to the outdoor recreation industry.

“It’s a huge concern,” said John DeCicco, a University of Michigan research professor who has worked for the environmental advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund. Under previous administrations, DeCicco said, committees like these were usually composed of scientific experts. “What it really represents is that certain powerful interests, moneyed interests, they have the ear of policymakers who are running roughshod over due process and running roughshod over important checks and balances that are supposed to be there.”

The working group was set up under the umbrella of the Royalty Policy Committee, a group tasked with recommending the royalty rates the federal government should charge for drilling. Many of the committee’s members hail from the oil and gas sector or have significant ties to it. Whereas the same committee had a narrow, technical focus under previous administrations, under Zinke, it has been making sweeping proposals to roll back regulations on federal lands. The committee members who set up the working group have proposed measures like charging bargain-basement royalties for deepwater drilling operations and have described their mandate as “looking at steps to be taken to make DOI a better business partner to its investors.”

Some of those steps appear to have been come directly from the Western Energy Alliance. A document obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that Parks created the draft recommendations one day before Sgamma circulated them to committee members overseeing the working group.

“It’s a very clear instance of regulatory capture,” said Pat Gallagher, the Sierra Club’s legal director. Of the recommendations, he said, “There is no other object than to get drill bits in the ground as quickly as possible.”

At best, Gallagher said, industry representatives are creating an echo chamber inside the Interior Department. Several of Parks’ recommendations mirror a report the department released in October on “energy burdens.” Sgamma told HuffPost that Parks’ name appears in the document’s metadata because she asked him to pull out relevant sections of the report. This was “the full extent of my staff’s involvement,” she wrote in an email.

What it really represents is that certain powerful interests, moneyed interests, they have the ear of policy makers who are running roughshod over due process.
John DeCicco, University of Michigan research professor

The recommendations included items that had been on Western Energy Alliance’s wish list for years, like a proposal to abandon the practice of re-evaluating long-term leases instead of automatically renewing them, which allowed federal regulators to plan around major changes to the landscape, such as new suburban developments.

Sgamma circulated the draft ― which she described as focusing on “increasing the competitiveness of federal lands” ― on Jan. 9, inviting her fellow group members to make changes. Some of Parks’ initial recommendations were cut from later drafts, but the agency has already taken action on one recommendation that survived: The Interior Department quietly ceased the Obama-era practice of planning local drilling sites according to local environmental concerns on Jan. 31. The industry had long argued that the practice created a redundant roadblock to new drilling projects.

“We’re very pleased,” Sgamma said at the time.

A handful of the most influential oil and gas developers in the country fund the Western Energy Alliance. Although it does not currently publicize the names of its members, the alliance has included Devon Energy, Halliburton, Anadarko Petroleum and Pioneer Natural Resources. Its political action committee donated $5,000 to Zinke’s campaigns while he served as Montana’s lone congressman.

The Western Energy Alliance fiercely opposed the Obama administration’s efforts to regulate the oil and gas industry, sometimes to the point of adopting a siege mentality. It invited Rick Berman, known for his ruthless, corporate-backed PR campaigns against environmentalists, to address its members in 2014. At the event, Berman framed the struggle against environmental groups as “an endless war.”

The draft recommendations are not the only example of the Western Energy Alliance having an outsized voice in the Trump administration. Parks, who is not registered as a lobbyist, previously presented an Interior advisory group with 15 recommendations for scrapping protections for the greater sage-grouse, which the industry felt impeded new energy projects; the advisory group adopted 13 of them.

The Interior Department did not respond to HuffPost’s questions about Parks’ role in drafting the recommendations. Sgamma has defended her role in making policy recommendations to the Interior Department by noting she has subject matter expertise. “I’m not an alternate member of the Royalty Policy Committee because of my sparkling personality,” she told HuffPost.

Sgamma added that the Interior Department had considered scrapping several of the Western Energy Alliance’s least favorite regulations even before the formation of her working group. 

But the alliance’s relationship with the Trump administration also stretches back many months. 

Entries in Zinke’s calendar show he met with representatives of the alliance in April 2017. A brief prepared for the secretary reminded him of a Trump administration order that for every new regulation created, agencies must place two old regulations on the chopping block.

The brief recommended that Zinke ask the alliance lobbyists which regulations he should scrap. But it wasn’t a matter of urgency: The agency has already rolled back more than two regulations for every new rule, the brief made clear, with the result that it had “built [up] a credit.”

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