House Committee To Explore Interior Department Reforms, Agency Relocation Proposals
At a committee on Natural Resources oversight hearing tomorrow on “Transforming the Department of the Interior for the 21st Century,” House members will hear testimony calling for the relocation of Interior agencies to the West and other efforts to streamline the department, according to testimony obtained by Western Wire.
Since Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) introduced the idea earlier in the year and then legislation in May to move the offices of the Bureau of Land Management to a Western state, several key Democrats in Colorado have signaled bipartisan support for such a move. Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), introduced the House version of the bill, calling an office move, “good policy.”
One of the witnesses at tomorrow’s hearing, Nick Loris, Herbert and Joyce Morgan Fellow in Energy and Environmental Policy at the Heritage Foundation, told Western Wire that relocation of Interior offices to the West increases accountability, makes sense for taxpayers, and will assist in increasing state primacy on issues like oil and gas permitting.
“I do think it makes a lot of sense,” Loris said, noting the bipartisan support expressed in states like Colorado. “Making the agency more responsible to the majority of its customers, which is the West, or the Gulf Coast for offshore energy, and more accountable to the people impacted by the decisions makes all the sense in the world,” Loris said. He added, it also “makes sense from a taxpayer standpoint for the agencies through lower cost rent and cost of living.”
“I’m all for it. I’m all for it, I think it would be great,” Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) told Western Wire in August. “I think anything we can get out of Washington, D.C. and into Colorado, I’m for.”
“Colorado is home to many employees with the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation,” Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) told Western Wire. “Their colleagues would receive a warm welcome should Sec. Zinke relocate the entire team to Colorado. It’s an ideal location and having them closer to the resources they manage makes good sense,” said Hickenlooper. Both Hickenlooper and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, also a Democrat, expressed early interest in the proposed move.
In August, E&E News published employee notes from a July 2017 meeting that included Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The notes outlined a possible relocation of up to three agencies to the Denver, Colorado area, including BLM, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR).
“Denver will probably have the headquarters for BLM, FWS, and BOR,” the employees wrote in the memo. Any agency relocation would not begin until 2019 at the earliest.
“The geologic makeup of lands across the U.S. presents different economic and environmental challenges. State regulators and local constituencies are best equipped to meet those challenges and capitalize on the opportunities available,” Loris wrote in his prepared remarks.
Loris finds fault in the “one-size-fits-all approach to land management” at the agency that ignores multiple-use principles and leads to land grabs and other restrictions, and has contributed to billions in maintenance backlogs on federal lands. “Federal ownership and control results in a static approach to very dynamic markets for land use, natural resource development, hunting, fishing, recreation and conservation,” Loris wrote. “Furthermore, federal ownership results in a static approach to an ever-changing environment. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reported on a number of managerial problems facing the agency, which the GAO indicates ‘are largely characterized by the struggle to balance the demand for greater use of its resources with the need to conserve and protect them.’”
“To have an effective agency you must first reduce what are not legitimate functions of the federal government,” Loris said, reducing the size and scope of the agency. He suggested privatizing the Bureau of Reclamation and other projects, and reducing BLM land holdings.
He also suggested repeal of the Land and Water Conservation Act and the Antiquities Act.
According to Loris, other steps could be looking to transfer or devolve activities to outside management or to the states and local governments, including environmental review and permitting processes on federal lands within their respective states, or state primacy. Loris said BLM applications for permit to drill (APD) backlogs on oil and gas leases were among those activities that should be left to the states, so that Interior isn’t duplicating permitting, for example.
“I think the states already do [permitting] well,” Loris said. “Reducing the regulatory burdens that Interior has imposed on the industry, and disregarded the multi-use land principle that is supposed to guide the agency’s decisions” should be part of fundamental reform, not just agency streamlining.
But Loris also said that the private sector could be more involved as well.
“If you look at something like the Department of Energy national labs, most of them are organized under the ‘GOCO’ model—government owned, contractor operated model—and I think there is a lesson to be learned there for the Department of the Interior,” Loris said. Such “management experiments” would lead to more innovation, sensible budgets, and address maintenance backlogs.
Kathleen Sgamma, President of Western Energy Alliance, will also appear before the committee. In prepared remarks, Sgamma outlines the need to move BLM offices to the West, to avoid the “obstruction” many feel is in place with the agency residing in Washington, D.C.
Western Wire is a project of Western Energy Alliance.
“Western Energy Alliance strongly supports moving BLM to the West, closer to the lands it manages,” Sgamma wrote. “The vast majority of the 245 million acres that BLM directly manages and the 700 million acres of federal mineral estate it administers are in the West, as should BLM be.”
Sgamma notes in her testimony that in local areas like Rio Blanco County in northwest Colorado, the county government receives 90 percent of is tax revenues from oil and gas development, derived from the county’s federally managed lands, which comprise more than 75 percent of the county’s total land area.
“Decisions BLM makes regarding oil and natural gas development on federal lands are very important for Rio Blanco, yet it has struggled with obstruction from BLM in Washington D.C. A BLM located in Grand Junction, Boise or Salt Lake City would be much closer to the land, issues and people affected by BLM decisions,” Sgamma wrote.
“Because of the large footprint of federal lands in the West, BLM decisions disproportionately affect westerners, whether they live in rural communities that derive large portions of their economic sustenance from public lands or in western cities like Denver, where we regularly travel to public lands to recreate,” Sgamma wrote.
“Decisions that are usually made at the local level, such as those regarding municipal water supplies, county roads, hiking trails, and wildland-urban interface management inevitably involve BLM in the many towns and counties predominated by public lands. These issues are better made jointly with a BLM that is locally integrated with communities, rather than in Washington, D.C.,” Sgamma wrote.
Sgamma says her organization remains skeptical of any regional, ecosystem, or watershed realignment for BLM reorganization.
“The best structure for the BLM is the current one, based largely on states. My experience with good BLM State Directors is that they work across state lines, share information, and coordinate ways to protect shared resources across borders while still tailoring management to unique conditions on the ground,” Sgamma wrote.