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Oil drillers, nature lovers get access to public lands despite shutdown

Energy and use of public lands are among the top priorities of Trump’s Interior Department, but activists warn that pursuing them during the shutdown is risky.

A pump jack operates in December in Midland County, Tex. (James Durbin/Reporter-Telegram/AP)

Food is going uninspected by regulators. Time-sensitive data is going uncollected by scientists. And other federal workers are going without pay while doing critical work manning airport terminals and border crossings.

While the partial government shutdown’s effects reverberate throughout the federal bureaucracy, the Trump administration is actively working to ease the impact on wilderness lovers and oil drillers alike.

Officials at the Interior Department have made a conscious effort to pursue two priorities President Trump has emphasized in his time in office — energy exploration and access to public lands — during the shutdown, according to a top department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk frankly.

When discussing what is most critical during the shutdown, “we have looked first to executive orders, those things the president has made a point of giving us guidance and direction on, and secretarial orders,” the official said.

The push to press ahead with as many operations as possible marks a sharp contrast with how the Interior Department, which oversees one in every five acres of U.S. land, operated during extended shutdowns under Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. The department is one of nine Cabinet-level departments hobbled by the partial government shutdown amid a standoff between congressional Democrats and Trump over funding for a border wall.

The Trump administration’s prioritization of energy exploration means the oil and gas business, one of the most heavily regulated industries in the United States, says it has yet to feel any real consequence from the shutdown.

“To this point, we have not seen any major effects of the shutdown on our industry,” Mike Sommers, president and chief executive of the oil and gas business’s chief lobbying organization, the American Petroleum Institute, told reporters Tuesday.

The department’s Bureau of Land Management, for example, had accepted and published 22 new drilling permit applications in Alaska, North Dakota, New Mexico and Oklahoma between the start of the shutdown and Wednesday afternoon. Officials said they did not anticipate any delays in the processing of either permit applications or requests for inspections of drilling operations on federal land.

The Bureau of Energy Management, which gets a large portion of its budget from fees, is operating at near full strength. Nearly every job is exempt “in order to comply with the administration’s America First energy strategy” and expand leases to the oil and gas industry — “work must continue toward” selling leases that could lead to drilling on the outer continental shelf, according to the agency’s contingency plan.

But elsewhere the department says it is not even accepting other sorts of filings — such as public-records requests from journalists, activists and other members of the public made under the Freedom of Information Act — due to the shutdown.

“It seems that the oil companies are getting services from the Department of the Interior when the public is not,” said Kelly Fuller, energy and mining campaign director at the Western Watershed Project, an advocacy group.

The department is also pressing ahead with its goal of preparing the Alaskan Arctic for more oil and gas drilling. The department decided to go ahead with four public listening sessions about the BLM’s push to define what activities can be permitted at the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska because doing so would help the scoping process move forward. The sessions, which were slated to wrap up before Interior stops accepting comments on Jan. 22, had been postponed because of the Nov. 30 earthquake that hit Alaska.

“The NPRA was one that jumped out as being one of those priorities,” said the official, adding that only two to three employees were required to conduct the listening sessions.

It remains unclear whether the shutdown will stymie perhaps the top goal in Alaska for the Trump administration: opening the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. While the agency announced Wednesday that it would postpone meetings in Alaska and Washington to discuss a draft document evaluating the impact of drilling on caribou, polar bears and other animals there, it indicated the Feb. 11 deadline for public comments remained unchanged.

The administration, along with Alaska’s all-Republican delegation in Congress, wants to see sections of the refuge’s coastal plain leased before the end of Trump’s term.

Park Service takes the 'extraordinary step' of tapping fees to keep some popular parks open during the shutdown

The Trump administration is also looking for ways to keep national parks and refuges open so as not to hurt local economies that rely on tourism.

Earlier this week, officials said they would temporarily close California’s Joshua Tree National Park on Thursday to clean bathrooms and do other maintenance work, such as addressing the felled trees vandals cut down to drive illegally through the park. But they pledged to “restore visitor access to the park as quickly as possible to mitigate any negative impact to the local economy.”

A day later, the National Park Service did just that. Using revenue from entrance fees, officials averted the scheduled closure and even said they would make some recently closed areas again accessible to park visitors.

And on Tuesday, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials told employees they will bring back roughly 240 of them, for 30 days, to help operate 38 national wildlife refuges across the country.

A coalition of organizations that work on park and refuge issues urged Trump in a letter Wednesday to keep areas closed. They argued that keeping understaffed parks and refuges open to visitors makes them vulnerable to vandalism, habitat degradation and illegal hunting.

“A lot of the damages could be avoided, knock on wood, if the refuges were closed,” said Geoffrey Haskett, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association.

In all of these instances, the department is using unspent appropriated funds from the past fiscal year, which ensures that it does not violate the Antideficiency Act.

Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Barbara Wainman said in an email that the agency is using its previously appropriated funds “to resume work for the next 30 days on high-priority projects and activities in support of the service’s mission and on behalf of the American public.” The agency is using $2 million of the $8 million remaining in its wildlife habitat and visitor services account to bring back its furloughed employees.

“These expenditures will meet the public’s desire for access to National Wildlife Refuge lands and use taxpayer dollars in a responsible manner consistent with existing service mission and priorities,” Wainman said.

The agency has halted other activities during the shutdown, such as work on listing endangered species or writing biological opinions on proposed federal projects.

The decision to reopen some wildlife refuges comes as the Park Service is pressing ahead with a plan to tap entrance fees to help remove the trash and human waste that has built up in many sites, which has prompted a series of partial closures.

One senior Park Service official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to avoid retaliation, said that Interior Department officials “did a 180” on their approach to park site closures once it became clear that mounting human waste and other factors posed serious health risks.

“Week one, it was, ‘Keep it all open,’ ” this employee said. “Week two or three, it was, ‘Close what you need to close.’ ”

Wild animals quickly access and spread human waste, which has prompted at least a half-dozen parks across the country to bar public access to some sites. While acting interior secretary David Bernhardt has just authorized parks that collect fees to dip into those funds to pay for maintenance operations, this official explained that it will take time to send park staffers in to clean up the human waste that has already accumulated.

“It’s essentially hazardous material,” the staffer said. “It’s not like you can have Boy Scouts come in and clean it up.”

In a sign of how closing parks remains a sensitive subject for the administration, this week the agency’s acting deputy director for operations, Rick Obernesser, sent out an email telling park managers they needed to let the Washington office know “as early as possible” when planning a closure due to the shutdown.

“This is not about us second guessing you or your park teams and their actions,” Obernesser wrote in the email, obtained by The Washington Post. “It is about informing DOI Leadership as soon as possible.”

Shutdown creates dangerous situation at Mammoth Hot Springs (Video: TWP)