Hundreds of thousands of federal employees returned to work on Monday after the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Most hadn’t worked in 35 days, and, if they did, they weren’t paid. There were a few exceptions; a handful kept working and were paid, too. They were processing oil and gas drilling permits.
Steven Hall, the communications manager for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Colorado, was asked to work during the shutdown, but didn’t get paid.
“There are people who have always been required to work during shutdowns, work or be on-call,” he said.
Other BLM employees, like firefighters and rangers, worked their normal jobs without pay. Hall has worked for the BLM for over a decade and this last shutdown wasn’t his first. Something different about this one was the cadre of BLM employees who continued processing oil and gas applications.
In Colorado, 50 applications for permit to drill were approved during the shutdown. Meanwhile, in Western Colorado, the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument was closed, the BLM didn’t answer the phone, and the public couldn’t do something as routine as apply for firewood permits.
But at the White River Field Office in Meeker, and all over the country, BLM employees worked on applications for permits to drill.
Mark Squillace, a law professor at CU Boulder, has worked on public lands issues for decades and has worked for the BLM. He says employees who work during a shutdown are those needed for emergencies. He can’t see any reason to keep working on oil and gas processing.
“Of all the things that you’re going to prioritize, in terms of your ability to keep things going, I have no idea why you would prioritize oil and gas permitting of any kind,” he said.
Squillace thinks the message coming from the BLM is clear, and it’s the same message, he feels, coming from President Trump.
“This administration seems hell-bent on developing every last bit of fossil fuels on our public lands that they can,” Squillace said.
Steven Hall with the BLM says anyone opposed to his colleagues continuing to process oil and gas permits simply oppose the industry.
“I don’t know that their opposition to how oil and gas may or may not have been occurring during the furlough is any different to their opposition to oil and gas in general,” Hall said.
He maintains the BLM conducted no work during the shutdown that required public comment or environmental analysis.
“It wasn’t as if things were being done without the environmental review. That had already occurred,” Hall said. The BLM didn’t take any new applications to drill because the employees needed for the environmental reviews weren’t working.
The BLM wasn’t only working on oil and gas development during the shutdown. There were several coal projects, which didn’t go far because they needed public comment. There was a land deal between the BLM and the Grand Junction airport, and one employee was funded to keep that on track.
Jesse Prentice-Dunn is the policy director for The Center for Western Priorities, a conservation and public lands non-profit based in Denver, which kept track of oil and gas projects on federal land during the shutdown.
Prentice-Dunn says government’s favoritism for oil and gas is clearly on display.
“I think what we’re seeing is the Interior Department is keeping the lights on for the oil and gas industry,” he said.
Now that the government is open, all BLM employees are back at work. If it shuts down again in mid-February, everyone might have to repeat this whole ordeal.
Almost everyone, that is.