Congress has been severely vexed by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s rush to dismantle and relocate the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to his home state, and he has refused to provide details about cost and rationale. With suspicion swirling that it is simply a power grab to get career staff out of the way, hobble the agency, and consolidate control of the budget process, legislators have been particularly keen to know his motivation.
The recent news about the location of the new office in Grand Junction, Colorado, has certainly helped answer that question.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency responsible for multiple-use management of nearly 250 million acres of public land and 700 million acres of underground minerals, the largest land manager in the country, will share a building with Chevron and oil and gas lobbying organizations.
Par for the course
While this has shocked observers, it is par for the course during the Trump administration—a symbolic capstone to the administration’s blatant efforts to hand industry the keys to public lands.
That may be true, but it sure doesn’t make it ok.
The last time the Interior Department got this openly (and literally) cozy with industry was in the years leading up to the Minerals Management Service (MMS) scandal of 2008, when authorities discovered that regulators were doing drugs, exchanging favors, and having sex with their industry counterparts. There were literally no boundaries between industry and the agency—during the ensuing investigation one of the agency executives said “Obviously, we’re all oil industry.”
The ethical lapses of government staff in this instance were flagrant, and the dismissive attitude toward ethics rules was disturbingly similar to what we’re seeing among Interior Department’s political leadership today, so it’s not surprising that we might see similar tendencies.
Complete capture by industry
The phenomenon in which industry has direct access to regulators who promote industry interests over those of the public is known as “regulatory capture.” It is frequently characterized by a revolving door of personnel and often bribery in the form of gifts and favors. It is also really, really hard to fix. Even though the MMS was broken up and reorganized during the Obama administration—which separated the environmental enforcement branch, the offshore oil and gas leasing branch, and the revenue collection branch into separate organizations—the revolving door remains.
I saw this firsthand. When the Trump administration reassigned me in retaliation for blowing the whistle on their climate change neglect, they sent me to the Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR), one of the three agencies created from the ashes of the MMS. While there I learned two things: a) I know nothing about auditing and b) many staff members have long industry resumes. I have deep admiration for the ONRR executives I worked with, but there is no denying the industry presence in the workforce.
Once regulatory capture infects an agency, it is nearly impossible to eradicate because an agency is understandably tempted to hire people who know the industry from the inside. At the very least, it remains subject to “cultural capture,” in which the agency comes to think like the industry it is charged with regulating.
So now BLM, the onshore equivalent of the MMS, is drifting ever closer to the warm embrace of the industry that wants unfettered access to public lands, our lands. Even if they somehow manage to avoid regulatory capture—and many observers say it’s far too late for that—there is no question that sharing a building will turbo-charge the existing cultural capture. It’s telling that Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, who took political credit for the relocation, has received more oil money for his 2020 campaign than any other US Senator.
Ironically, and laughably, BLM spokesman Chris Tollefson said the move will be effective because it will pull the agency away from all the special interests in Washington, DC—presumably referring to Congress and the other federal agencies that historically partner with BLM. This is just as nonsensical as their assertion that the move will improve operations among BLM offices—none of which are a direct flight from Grand Junction, Colorado, where the new HQ will be located.
A move right out of the Disinformation Playbook
If you think this is an aberration and not part of the administration’s playbook, look no further than the Union of Concerned Scientists excellent Disinformation Playbook and scroll down to play #5, The Fix: Manipulate government officials or processes to inappropriately influence policy. This headquarters relocation is right out of the playbook—and we can expect to see industry pulling the BLM strings more vigorously in the near future.
Secretary Bernhardt has failed to offer compelling justification for the chaotic relocation, and his attempts have been transparently feeble (is it really more effective to have the Congressional affairs staff in Reno, Nevada?). Tellingly, Trump’s Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney has praised such relocations as a great tool for getting career staff to quit. That said, the new address for the BLM says all we need to know about the administration’s primary motivation.
Bernhardt is not doing this for the good of the agency, or the public interest. He’s doing it for his industry sponsors. They are delighted that he is delivering the agency into their hands while Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell prevents Congressional oversight by sitting on his. Rather than quietly watch the concept of public service get turned on its head, Representative Raul Grijalva and the House Natural Resources Committee that he chairs are asking hard questions.
It’s time that Secretary Bernhardt takes responsibility for his actions and provides straightforward answers.
Joel Clement is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and the public face of the UCS Science Protection Project, through which federal scientists may confidentially report political interference in government science. Mr. Clement served in the US Department of the Interior (DOI) before becoming a whistleblower in 2017. He now works to expose political interference in science from the Trump administration and Congress.