Emails Reveal Trump Admin Mulling Big Oil Plan to Transfer Public Land to States

Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada

During its first year under Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Interior has coordinated closely with the oil and gas industry to accomplish its priorities on the nation's expansive federal lands. Among them: considering a plan to transfer control of oil and gas development on public lands to the states. This revelation comes from emails and documents obtained by the Western Values Project through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The key coordinator of this plan has been Timothy Williams, who has served as the go-between for the oil and gas industry and Interior Department. Williams, deputy director of the agency's Office of External Affairs, formerly served as the field director of the Nevada state branch of Americans for Prosperity, a front group founded and funded by Koch Industries.

Williams, the emails show, has served as the point of contact for outreach on policy issues for groups such as the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), Western Energy Alliance, the American Petroleum Institute (API) and its state-level branches, and other oil and gas companies such as ConocoPhillips, Chesapeake Energy, and EOG Resources. IPAA is best known as the creator of the front group Energy in Depth, which serves as an outspoken voice on issues pertaining particularly to hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the U.S.

The emails also portray discussions of the policy fight over endangered species protections for the greater sage grouse and other regulatory topics, with regular outreach to and input received from the oil and gas industry. They further exhibit many examples of Interior Department officials, including Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, being invited — and often accepting invitations — to speak at industry events and conferences.

Push to Transfer Federal Lands to States

The emails display that, on a regular basis, the oil and gas industry notifies senior-ranking Interior Department officials when submitting regulatory comments. Usually, those types of comments are sent to a general email account or via online submissions.

For example, the department’s regulatory reform initiative, launched in June, set up the email address [email protected]. That address is listed in a Federal Register notice, posted in June 2017, calling for public comments on the Interior Department’s initiative to slash regulations.

In comments submitted to the Interior Department on August 10 and then emailed to high-ranking Interior Department officials, the Western Energy Alliance called for the agency to transfer control of oil and gas production on federal public lands to the states, citing an Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC) model resolution on public lands passed in 2017.

The Interstate Oil & Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC), a multi-state government agency representing oil and natural gas producing states, has issued a resolution urging delegation to the states for the regulation of operations on federal public land,” reads the comment. “The IOGCC resolution sends a clear signal that states are prepared to take on the added responsibility for approving drilling and completion permits, rights-of-way, and inspections on federal lands.”

IOGCC is a group of state-level oil and gas regulators, organized as an interstate compact, which receives funding from oil and gas production and from industry sponsorship of its twice-annual conferences. It serves as a de facto lobbying organization for the industry. Transferring federal lands over to the states has long been on the wish-list of IOGCC, Western Energy Alliance, API, and IPAA.

A month later, it appears, the Western Energy Alliance held a meeting with Vincent DeVito — Zinke’s top energy aide within the Interior Department — about the lands transfer issue.

Vincent DeVito. Credit: Vincent DeVito Twitter Profile

In a September 14 email, Western Energy Alliance's president, Kathleen Sgamma, thanked DeVito for meeting with her and said she would “work up a comprehensive briefing paper on the federal nexus and delegation of primacy ideas that we discussed and get that to you as soon as they’re ready.”

Sgamma, as previously reported by DeSmog, spearheaded the effort to move leasing for oil and gas on federal public lands and offshore plots from in-person auctions to an online venue run by the private company EnergyNet. The effort's aim was to “end the circus” of protests at those auctions organized by the “Keep It In The Ground” movement. Sgamma also gave a presentation about the public lands transfer issue at IOGCC's 2015 Annual Business Meeting held in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Both DeVito and Sgamma did not respond to a request for comment before publication. A spokesman from the Western Energy Alliance told DeSmog that Sgamma was currently in Washington, D.C. in her capacity as a member of the Interior Department's Royalty Policy Committee and could not immediately respond to a question about the briefing paper she mentioned in her September 14 email to DeVito. 

ONSHORE Act and Public Land Swap

Months later on January 18, the Republican U.S. Senate delegations from Utah and Wyoming, as well as U.S. Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), introduced a bill — invoking the term “cooperative federalism” — which would essentially fulfill Western Energy Alliance's goals. In the fourth quarter of 2017, API lobbied for that bill, the ONSHORE (Opportunities for the Nation and States to Harness Onshore Resources for Energy) Act (S. 2319), according to lobbying disclosure forms reviewed by DeSmog.

Duplicative regulations on federal lands are especially costly for western states, where federal ownership is mixed among state and private lands,” Hoeven, a former IOGCC chairman and past North Dakota governor, said in a press release. “Our legislation recognizes that states like North Dakota have long had effective regulatory systems in place and should take the lead in managing oil and gas development within their borders. This will help unlock our nation’s energy potential, creating good jobs for our citizens while also ensuring good environmental stewardship.”

As previously reported by DeSmog, IOGCC's North Dakota representative — Lynn Helms, director of mineral resources for the North Dakota Industrial Commission and former employee of the oil and gas company Hess Corporation — has employed his relationship with Hoeven's most senior staffer to garner congressional support for swapping regulatory control of oil and gas production on federal lands. That staffer is Ryan Bernstein and he serves as chief of staff and legal counsel for Sen. Hoeven.

Bernstein has $100,000-$250,000 invested in oil and gas minerals through his company Hills and Prairie Properties LLC, according to his 2017 congressional personal financial disclosure forms reviewed by DeSmog.

Bernstein, at the behest of IOGCC, also prompted a Congressional Research Service (CRS) study on the legality of the land transfer idea, with the service concluding it would violate federal law unless new congressional legislation is enacted. That study was never published by CRS, but was obtained in a records request by DeSmog, and appears to be the potential impetus behind introduction of the ONSHORE Act.

CRS Study Oil Gas Public Lands
Credit: Congressional Research Service

Helms, who sat on IOGCC's resolutions committee when he first spearheaded the idea of the land transfer, also advocated for the ONSHORE Act during a congressional hearing.

IPAA also came out in support of the ONSHORE Act in a hearing held by the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. The lobbying group pointed to the IOGCC model resolution in its testimony.

IPAA strongly supports efforts to delegate primary regulatory authority for oil and natural gas activities on federal land to the states,” said the IPAA official. “We support the IOGCC resolution and believe the mechanism outlined in the ONSHORE Act provides a workable process to achieve that objective.”

IOGCC’s Alaska representative — Cathy Foerster, commissioner for the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission — also testified at that hearing in support of the land swap idea, pointing to IOGCC's ability to carry it out if it became public policy.

Environmental groups, however, feel differently about the matter and 39 of them decried the ONSHORE Act in a letter.

Federal agencies are required by law to manage our public lands and resources for multiple use — including environmental protection and community health — for present and future generations,” they wrote. “States, on the other hand, often lack the funding, staffing, and expertise necessary to manage the workload that is associated with overseeing federal oil and gas development. Many states currently lack the resources to manage their own oil and gas programs.”

'No Request Will Go Unanswered'

The Western Values Project, an advocacy group focused on energy and public lands issues in the American West, has decried what it discovered in its FOIA request, saying the findings convey how the interests between the oil and gas industry and the Interior Department seem to have fused in the Trump era.

These emails show the level of influence by oil and gas industry trade groups and lobbyists being granted by Interior political appointees on critical public land decisions. Across the board, it appears no request will go unanswered and will likely end up being fulfilled by Interior,” said Jayson O’Neill, deputy director of the group, in a press release. “We already knew Secretary Zinke was beholden to oil and gas lobbyists and special interests, but the extent to which it has permeated across Interior should concern everyone that values public lands.”

Main image: Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada. Credit: U.S. Bureau of Land Management, public  domain