The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: The Trump administration is forcing these workers out West. Now they want to unionize.

with Paulina Firozi


Employees at the headquarters of the federal government's main land-management agency are trying to unionize in response to a controversial reorganization plan to relocate hundreds of staffers thousands of miles away from Washington.

The fledgling labor organizing effort comes amid a Trump administration plan to move more than 200 positions from the Bureau of Land Management based in Washington to offices out West, including to a recently opened headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo. 

“By organizing, BLM employees could have a voice in the workplace and a seat at the table when changes — like massive office relocations — are proposed,” said Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which is seeking to represent the BLM staffers.  

The BLM says the idea behind the move is to save money and get land managers closer to the more than 240 million acres of Western prairies and woodlands under their care. But leaders at its parent agency, the Department of the Interior, have encountered resistance to the move not only from many of the staffers who must uproot their lives to keep their jobs, but also from several Democrats in Congress who see the reorganization as a way of dismantling the agency.

NTEU filed a petition last month to represent around 160 staffers who work at BLM's Washington office. The union represents about 150,000 employees across 33 different federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and National Park Service. 

Several BLM employees contacted and met with union officials in September, with at least 30 percent of the headquarters staff voicing their support for unionizing, according to NTEU. The BLM has until the end of this month to respond to the petition and say which employees it thinks qualify for union coverage. One outstanding question is whether employees who have already moved out West would still be eligible for union membership. 

If the agency and the union cannot agree on which employees would be covered, the decision will be tossed to the Federal Labor Relations Authority. Once the members of the collective bargaining unit are determined, a majority of employees who choose to vote must support unionization for the unit to be officially established.

“We have received the petition and are reviewing for appropriate agency response,” BLM spokesman Derrick Henry said in a brief statement on the unionization effort.

During a House hearing in September, BLM's top official, William Perry Pendley, defended relocating the employees because of the “number of significant benefits” of doing so, including cheaper office space outside the pricey D.C. rental market. 

“This realignment is an important undertaking that is long overdue,” Pendley said. 

But several skeptical Democratic lawmakers say that such a disruptive reorganization has not been justified by enough analysis, noting that 19 out of every 20 BLM employees are already based outside of Washington. Some even see a more sinister plot: to weaken federal agencies by pushing longtime career workers out. 

A "brain drain" is what happened last year at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture as well as the Economic Research Service, two research agencies within the Agriculture Department, when about two-thirds of employees declined reassignments to Kansas City in a reorganization similar to that at BLM.

Since the hearing in September, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) has threatened to subpoena the Interior Department for data and other documents explaining the rationale behind the relocations.

The relocation of BLM employees, Grijalva said at a news conference last month, is “an attempt to remove any obstacles to the administration's agenda of opening public lands to fossil fuel corporations and to undermine the mission of the agency.”


— What calls to ban fracking mean in Pennsylvania ahead of 2020: Some Democratic leaders in the state are worried a pledge to ban all hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, would be risky for presidential hopefuls trying to court the workers in the key battleground, the New York Times reports. That could make Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) vulnerable as they try to push for a national fracking ban. 

  • To quote: “In Pennsylvania, you’re talking hundreds of thousands of related jobs that would be — they would be unemployed overnight,” John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, told the Times. “Pennsylvania is a margin play … And an outright ban on fracking isn’t a margin play.”
  • The big picture: “In critical pockets of the country, perhaps none more so than Pennsylvania, the issue of fracking could become vital in the general election, according to union leaders, Democratic politicians and Republican strategists. Potential battleground states where Democrats nurse dreams of winning, like Ohio and Texas, are hotbeds of natural gas — Texas has 137,000 natural gas wells — and Mr. Trump has signaled he hopes for a Republican comeback in New Mexico, another fracking state.”

— Bipartisan senators call for funding for Great Lakes: Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) led a letter to the Office of Management and Budget and the Environmental Protection Agency calling for at least $320 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to be included in the administration’s budget for the next fiscal year. 

  • What they said: “Aging sewers, invasive species, harmful algal blooms and toxic pollutants are just a few of the pervasive threats that impact the region,” they wrote. “…Cutting funding will slow restoration efforts, allowing problems to get worse and making them more expensive to solve. Ultimately, cutting spending on the Great Lakes won’t save money — it will cost the nation more.”

— Some New England governors slow to sign on to regional climate pact: The Transportation and Climate Initiative announced last month is meant to tackle transportation-related pollution. But numerous governors, including the administrations of New Hampshire’s Gov. Chris Sununu (R), Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) and Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) have not committed to joining, the Associated Press reports.

  • What they're saying: Sununu cited concerns about a gas price hike, Scott said he would not support a plan that amounts to a carbon tax, and a spokesman for Mills expressed concerns about addressing transportation in a rural state. Meanwhile, supports say “fears over gas prices are overblown and ignore the initiative’s potential benefits,” the AP adds.

— New Jersey builders will have to consider climate change: Gov. Philip D. Murphy (D) announced the state will be the first to mandate that builders think about the impact of climate change, such as rising sea levels, when requesting government approval on new projects, the New York Times reports. “It gives us the ability to say no, or to say, ‘You have to do it differently,’ ” Kathleen Frangione, the governor’s chief policy adviser, told the Times. 

  • The details: “New Jersey’s initiative is believed to be the broadest, and most specific, attempt to leverage land-use rules to control where and what developers can build, and to limit the volume of emissions that are spewed into the air,” per the Times. “…Mr. Murphy, through executive order, will require the state Department of Environmental Protection to begin the process of drafting new regulations to be adopted by January 2022. The changes do not require legislative approval, but could face legal and political challenges."

— Group targets Republican senator over Arctic National Wildlife Refuge bill: The Alaska Wilderness League Action is spending $150,000 on an ad campaign targeting Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) to push him to support legislation that would designate about 1.55 million acres of land in the ANWR as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, the Hill reports. “Let’s be clear, on the most important public lands vote of his Senate career, Senator Gardner chose to side with oil and gas interests instead of standing up for Colorado values,” Gareth Martins, the group’s Colorado political chairman, said in a statement. 

  • Gardner’s response: In a statement to the Hill, Gardner spokesman Jerrod Dobkin said: ““While the far-left is advocating for pie-in-the-sky proposals that would destroy jobs, Senator Gardner has successfully passed bipartisan legislation over the past decade that achieves real results to protect the environment and deal with climate change. From protecting Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado to permanently reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Senator Gardner has been a leader when it comes to protecting the environment, and this attack is nothing more than an attempt by a political group to mislead voters.”

— Amazon employees speak out on climate: Hundreds of employees shared their concerns about how the retail giant has addressed climate change, sharing quotes in a Medium post despite a policy they say could leave their jobs at risk. “The online protest was organized by a group called Amazon Employees For Climate Justice, an advocacy group founded by Amazon workers that earlier this month said the company had sent letters to its members threatening to fire them if they continued to speak to the press,” CBS News reports. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)

  • To quote: “Every day at Amazon I work with incredible people on great projects, but I am weighed down by the knowledge that Amazon partners with the oil and gas industry despite its Climate Pledge. We must be climate leaders, not delayers,” reads one employee quote on Medium.
  • What the company says: “While all employees are welcome to engage constructively with any of the many teams inside Amazon that work on sustainability and other topics, we do enforce our external communications policy and will not allow employees to publicly disparage or misrepresent the company or the hard work of their colleagues who are developing solutions to these hard problems,” an Amazon spokesman said.

— How climate change may affect your favorite glass of wine: A new study warns rising global temperatures will make it more difficult to grow grapes for good wine, the Sacramento Bee reports. The study in the the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found a “2-degree Celsius temperature increase would mean regions where wine grapes can be grown would shrink by 56%. If temperatures rise by 4 degrees, 85% of that land would be threatened.” 

  • What if grape growers adapt to the climate: “The study showed that by switching to grapes more suitable for the increases, only about 24% of the grapes would be lost instead of the 56%. In the 4 degree-increase scenario, changing the varieties reduced losses from 85% to 58%, the news release says.”

— Kellogg's to phase out products treated with widely used herbicide: The multinational food manufacturer announced at the end of last year it will commit to phasing out wheats and oats treated with glyphosate by 2025. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Bayer-Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer, the most heavily used herbicide in the country, The Post’s Laura Reiley reports. “We are working with our suppliers and other stakeholders to create an action plan for 2025,” said Kellogg’s chief sustainability officer Amy Senter. 

  • Industry groups didn’t know about the change: “But Kellogg’s neglected to tell the industry groups that support wheat and oat growers, said Caitlin Eannello, the director of communications for the National Association of Wheat Growers,” Reiley adds. “…Eannello says pre-harvest applications of glyphosate occur on 3 percent or less of wheat acreage in the United States.”

— GM's electric investment: General Motors announced a plan to invest $2.2 billion toward building electric trucks and SUVs at a Detroit factory, which would add 2,200 jobs, Reuters reports. “Ford is also expected to begin building premium electric pickups in late 2021 at a Detroit-area assembly plant. Ford and GM expect annual electric truck production to hit around 40,000 units by 2024, analysts have said,” per the report.



  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources holds a hearing on "The Importance of Public Disclosure Requirements for Protecting Human Health, the Climate, and the Environment."
  • The House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry holds a hearing on reviewing implementation of Farm Bill conservation programs."
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittees on Energy holds a hearing on the impact of wildfires on the power sector and the environment."

Coming Up

  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing "to examine stakeholder perspectives on the importance of the United States Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board" on Wednesday.


— Parts of the East Coast have been snow-starved: “For many along the East Coast, the winter of 2019-2020 is shaping up to be a cakewalk. Snow-making storms seem to be avoiding the East Coast at all costs. Some systems have swept in with drenching rain but nary a flake to be found. Others have blossomed into powerful blizzards as they drift out to sea,” The Post’s Matthew Cappucci and Jason Samenow report.