Blog Post Ani Kame’enui Mar 27, 2020

Misplaced Priorities

Why is the administration moving forward on oil and gas leasing and other development projects on public lands while the nation struggles to meet its basic needs?

If you had no idea the federal government was continuing to lease public lands for oil and gas development this month despite being in the throes of a major national crisis, you’re not alone.

As Americans struggle to cope with the developing COVID-19 pandemic, federal land management projects are — rightly — the last thing on many people’s minds. Yet dozens of regulations and programs that affect national parks, public lands and people’s health are moving forward with less public engagement as people across the country focus their attention on more urgent public health concerns.

Worse, the Environmental Protection Agency announced yesterday that it will actually relax enforcement of air, water and hazardous waste violations to accommodate businesses during the coronavirus crisis. The Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management are facing similar requests from the oil and gas industry to relax compliance standards during the crisis.

Why are leaders at these federal agencies allowing projects to sail forward and industry to go unchecked at a time when public health should be everyone’s biggest concern? This erosion of democracy prioritizes private interests over our nation’s collective public interests at a time when everyday people are focused on far more pressing concerns.

Here are a few examples of regulations and programs that agency staff are pushing forward during the pandemic.

  • Earlier this week, the Bureau of Land Management auctioned more than 212,000 acres of public land for oil and gas development in four states — including land near Rocky Mountain National Park — some of which sold for the minimum price of $2 per acre. More than half of the land offered was not leased and is now available for non-competitive leasing, meaning companies could develop and industrialize the landscape for an even cheaper price. Upcoming lease sales, if not paused, would affect additional acreage in New Mexico and Utah near Chaco Culture National Historic Site and Arches and Canyonlands National Park.

  • The Environmental Protection Agency is moving to finalize a rule, misleadingly dubbed the “transparency rule,” that would forbid its staff from using scientific studies in key policy decisions if the data is not publicly available, thus sidelining science from government decisions.

  • The Environmental Protection Agency could finalize an amendment to Utah’s state haze plan that would weaken Clean Air Act protections for Utah parks and allow two coal-fired power plants in the state to continue polluting the air without the best available retrofit technology to significantly reduce nitrogen oxide emissions and protect public health.

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Allowing projects like these to move forward during a state of national emergency is simply unacceptable. Last week, NPCA led a coalition of 15 of the nation’s largest advocacy organizations requesting that these federal agencies pause all such rulemaking and suspend comment periods until members of the public can participate.

To date, NPCA has received no official response, aside from a brief notice from the General Services Administration, the agency that manages comment periods on public processes, stating that “current operating status remain operational to serve the American people and to conduct mission critical functions including public comment periods, deadlines, and meeting calendars, in light of the evolving concerns regarding COVID-19.”

We are now calling on lawmakers to pause these decisions while the nation is in crisis.

Public involvement is crucial to a functioning democracy. At a time when people are housebound and concerned for their health and their families, it is virtually impossible to ensure that people have a fair voice in the decisions that affect them. Sheltering in place disproportionately affects people with limited means, reducing or eliminating access to public transportation, internet services, libraries and other community resources — all on top of the very real fear people around the nation have for their health, jobs and well-being. Pausing unnecessary regulatory processes now is a simple matter of equity and fairness.

We will continue to fight for our public and environmental health, but to rush through regulations that affect “forever places” such as national parks when Americans are focused on more urgent concerns is not just tone-deaf — it is irresponsible and unjust.

About the author

  • Ani Kame’enui Former Deputy Vice President, Government Affairs

    Ani Kame’enui is the Deputy Vice President for the Government Affairs team and responsible for managing NPCA's policy portfolio across a range of park issues. She comes to NPCA with a background in geology, water resources engineering, and a love for natural resource science and policy.