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The Energy 202: Interior agency blocks group of archaeologists from attending scientific conference

with Paulina Firozi


The Bureau of Land Management blocked at least 14 of its staff archaeologists and other specialists from attending a major scientific conference this year, at a time when archeological sites have become a flashpoint in the debate over public lands protection.

The archeologists and other BLM employees, many working and living in Western states, were originally scheduled to attend the annual meeting in Washington of the Society for American Archaeology, the largest organization of professional archaeologists in the Western Hemisphere.

But officials at BLM’s headquarters in Washington only authorized the attendance of three archaeologists, citing “the potential travel and other costs” of the trips.

“The decision was made after reviewing the conference topics and agenda, and we sent the people who could best represent the BLM,” BLM spokeswoman Amber Cargile told The Washington Post. “We value our professional relationship with SAA and the important role our archaeologists play in the Bureau's multiple use mission.”

The archaeologists from BLM were scheduled to give a presentation at a symposium titled “Tough Issues in Land Management Archaeology,” which ultimately had to be cancelled due to the lack of participation of government scientists. 

Now some archaeological and environmental groups point to the decision as another example of the Trump Interior Department’s effort to restrict researchers’ communications with the public and fellow scientists. (BLM is part of Interior.)

“From what I understand, there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to do this,” said Paul Reed, a preservation archaeologist with the nonprofit archaeology organization Archaeology Southwest. “It’s a lost opportunity. This meeting only happens once a year.”

“I certainly think this is a part of the overall political shift,” Reed added. 

Federal work databases maintained by and show that 17 of the scheduled presenters at the SAA symposium were employed by BLM as of 2017. An Interior Department employee, speaking under condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, confirmed that the 17 work for BLM. The bureau did not tell The Post which three employees it ultimately sent to the conference.

The symposium was going to touch on several contentious issues, according to the event schedule, including the enforcement of the 1906 Antiquities Act under which President Barack Obama designated numerous new national monuments now under review by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

The act, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, grants the commander-in-chief authority to set aside public land — including archaeological sites — for natural, scientific or cultural protection. Former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton did just that when they created the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, respectively, in Utah. One of the justifications for the national monument designations was to protect culturally historic sites for Native Americans. 

The Utah monument areas, each overseen in part by BLM, have both been raided by artifact looters. Only permitted researchers can legally dig for artifacts on BLM lands. 

But many conservatives, including many Utahns who wants better access to the land for grazing and other commercial activity, saw the sprawling size of both designations as a case of classic federal overreach.

Late last year, President Trump officially moved to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante by more than 1.1 million acres and more than 800,000 acres, respectively. "They don't know your land, and truly, they don't care for your land like you do," Trump told Utah lawmakers and other residents in Salt Lake City in December. "But from now on, that won't matter."

The head of the Society for American Archaeology expressed disappointment that BLM archaeologists could not share their knowledge of the land with other researchers gathered in Washington.

“Archaeologists from around the world were deprived of a symposium filled with valuable information about the tough issues facing land-managing agencies,” SAA president Susan Chandler said in a statement.

The scientific society added that archaeologists from federal land management agencies, including the BLM, have regularly attended and presented at SAA conferences since the government began hiring archaeologists after the passage of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act.

One BLM employee, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, said that staffers vetted their conference attendance through the BLM director’s office for approval during both the Obama and Trump administrations. Under both administrations, budget was a consideration, but under Trump “individual events themselves and topics to be covered got more scrutiny," the employee said.

"This entire incident reeks of scientific interference to advance the administration’s energy-at-all-costs agenda," said Aaron Weiss, media director at the Center for Western Priorities. 

The restriction on archaeologists attending the conference this year did not span the entire Interior Department. The National Park Service, another division within Interior, gave the greenlight to all 25 of its archaeologists who asked for permission to go to the SAA conference, NPS spokesman Jeremy Barnum said.

At other times, however, various Interior Department agencies reined in how government-funded science is publicized.

Last year, officials at Interior headquarters directed the U.S. Geological Survey to delete a line from a news release discussing the role climate change played in raising Earth’s oceans and removed two top climate experts at Montana's Glacier National Park from a delegation scheduled to show Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg around the park full of shrinking glaciers.

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

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— It turns out former lobbyist Richard Smotkin not only arranged Pruitt’s $100,000 trip to Morocco, he also worked with another Washington consultant to plan Pruitt’s canceled trip to Australia, The Post’s Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin report along with the New York Times. Emails obtained through litigation by the Sierra Club show Matthew C. Freedman, chief executive of the firm Global Impact Inc., communicated with various EPA aides to arrange the trip.

Freedman made clear to EPA aides his involvement and that of Smotkin’s should not be widely known. “Rick and I will attend and will be present but will not be listed as members of the delegation. Also, I will make all arrangements for us; we do not want to utilize any [U.S. government] assets for our involvement,” Freedman wrote in a July 10 email.

Freedman also warned in an email as he planned the Australian trip that Pruitt might get an angry reception from officials in Australia who disagree with the Trump administration’s stance on climate change. In an email to EPA scheduler Millan Hupp, he wrote “the outright hostility may come to the surface more frequently than you might expect. He needs to be prepared for a more confused and angry group of Aussies,” Politico reports.

Now Democrats are calling for more information about the lobbyist’s effort in planning the Morocco trip. “Administrator Pruitt needs to explain this trip,” Democratic Sens. Thomas R. Carper (Del.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) said in a joint statement. “We have been pushing for answers on Administrator Pruitt’s jaunt to Morocco for months." They note Pruitt said he traveled to Morocco to promote the export of U.S. natural gas, an activity the Energy Department (not the EPA) regulates.

Drip, drip: A newly released EPA memo reveals the lobbyist whose wife rented a Capitol Hill condo to Pruitt sought committee posts in the agency for a client of his.

“I want to highlight three candidates...who were nominated by our client, Dennis Treacy, the president of the Smithfield Foundation,” lobbyist J. Steven Hart wrote in an August 10 email to Pruitt’s chief of staff Ryan Jackson. The email referred to suggested appointments for the three candidates to an EPA science advisory board, the Associated Press reports.  Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) said the email reveals “the extent to which the special interests providing him with gifts have sought specific favors from EPA in return.”  

— Sage groused: The Trump administration has finally released a proposal to ease restrictions on oil and gas leasing in an area in the West that were established to protect the greater sage grouse, per the Associated Press. “Conservation groups critical of Trump’s energy policies warned Wednesday’s proposal could unravel a years-long effort to shore up the bird’s struggling population,” the AP reports. Meanwhile, “Interior Department officials said the revisions to the Obama-era plans were aimed at increasing flexibility on public lands where the birds reside."

— Virginia Democrat vs. the U.S. Forest Service: State Sen. Chap Petersen of Fairfax filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the federal forestry agency in the latest legal challenge to the Mountain Valley Pipeline, "claiming that federal officials are illegally blocking access to a road in the Jefferson National Forest where several people are protesting" its construction, The Post's Gregory S. Schneider reports. The 303-mile natural gas pipeline starts in West Virginia and crosses through Virginia’s southwest mountains.


— Climate inequality: A new study has found tropical countries, which tend to be poorer and have contributed less overall to the changing climate, will likely suffer the most from major temperature swings, The Post’s Chris Mooney reports.

“There has been a lot of debate about how rich countries can help poor countries to adapt, but they have overlooked this aspect — that the impacts of climate variability change might be worse in the poorer countries,” Sebastian Bathiany, a climate change researcher at Wageningen University who led the research published in the journal Science Advances, told The Post. The map above illustrates how predicted changes in temperature variability are higher in South America, Africa and South and Southeast Asia — some of the world's poorer regions.

— Nevertheless, the United States is not off the hook: A new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond found temperature increases "could reduce U.S. economic growth by up to one-third over the next century," per the Wall Street Journal.

 — Just in time for snorkeling season: Lawmakers in Hawaii passed a bill on Tuesday to prohibit the sale of sunscreens with chemicals that are harmful to coral reefs. The bill, which is awaiting a signature from Gov. David Ige (D), would take effect at the beginning of 2021, and would make Hawaii the first state with such a law, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

— "Make our planet great again": As part of French President Emmanuel Macron’s pledge to “Make our Planet Great Again,” 14 more researchers from seven countries —  including, notably, six from U.S. universities — have been chosen to conduct climate science projects in France, Bloomberg News reports. The others are from Canada, Peru, Switzerland, Britain and Saudi Arabia, the ministry said. The latest group is in addition to the 18 research projects announced last December. 


— It's official: The American Petroleum Institute, the main lobbying arm of the oil and natural gas business in Washington, just announced a new head. Mike Sommers, once an aide to former Republican speaker of the House John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), will be the API's new president and chief executive. The lobby shop's current leader, Jack Gerard, is leaving API after ten years at the helm to take a position within the Church of Latter Day Saints. Sommers currently leads another D.C.-based lobbying group, the American Investment Council, representing private equity firms.

— Wind and solar lobby sways right: Donations from the solar and wind energy industry have gone to more Republicans than Democrats in congressional races so far this election season, according to an analysis from Reuters. While the donations are not as large as what comes from fossil fuel interests, Reuters notes the shift is an “unprecedented tilt to the right for an industry long associated with the environmental left,” and gives the GOP credibility on the issue of clean energy.

The shift makes sense in the current political and economic climate when you consider: 1) Republicans control every branch of government and 2) both forms of renewable energy still depended on government subsidies to fuel their growth.

— Fuel me on the moon: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross suggested the possibility of a "gas station" on the moon is not far off. “You're going to end up with the moon being a type of gas station,” Ross said in an interview at the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing conference last week. When asked whether that would happen in the next decade, Ross insisted it would happen “a lot sooner than that.”

“NASA scientists have been studying the idea of having some sort of landing and refueling station on the moon — or near it,” The Post’s Heather Long reports. “It's difficult to send rockets from Earth directly to Mars or an asteroid because they need to carry large amounts of fuel to go such a long distance.” The space agency is one of the few government departments the Trump administration sought to give a funding boost.

— Musk in the hot seat: Tesla chief executive Elon Musk insisted during a call with analysts Wednesday that despite burning through more cash than expected during the first quarter, the company is still on track to make 5,000 of its highly anticipated Model 3 electric cars a week by the end of the second quarter. “The twice postponed goal is critical, analysts say, for Tesla to generate cash and reach profitability,” the Wall Street Journal reports. The automaker has had five consecutive quarters of losses.

Meanwhile, feeling pressure from Tesla’s ramp up of production, General Motor’s electric Bolt saw a 19 percent drop in sales last month. “After averaging almost 1,500 a month in the first quarter, deliveries dropped to a little more than 1,000,” Bloomberg News reports.

— Mayors tell oil refinery to stop using dangerous chemicals: The mayors of cities of Superior, Wis. and Duluth, Minn. are calling on the owners of the Husk Energy refinery to stop using dangerous chemicals at the site, the Associated Press reports. The oil refinery is the site of last week’s explosion that left more than a dozen people injured and forced the evacuation of nearby homes. Superior Mayor Jim Paine and Duluth Mayor Emily Larson have asked the company to find a safer alternative to hydrogen fluoride, which can produce toxic vapor clouds.



  • The Energy 202 author Dino Grandoni moderates an event hosted by The Wilderness Society on climate change and U.S. Public Lands. 
  • The Heritage Foundation holds an eventon the Iran Nuclear Agreement.

— Fish's eye view: Today is the last day the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its partners will be streaming its Gulf of Mexico 2018 expedition, a mission on NOAA's Ship Okeanos Explorer: