BLM, DOI, EPA Vow To Continue Working Amid COVID-19, Opening Parks And Holding Lease Sales
In the wake of ongoing COVID-19 concerns, federal agencies regulating energy production have vowed to continue working, promoting telework and promising to conduct legally mandated operations, such as oil and gas lease sales, agency officials said this week.
The Bureau of Land Management, Department of the Interior, and Environmental Protection Agency have issued plans to suspend entrance fees temporarily and open national parks and other federally managed properties, promote online oil and gas lease sales, and continue to perform day-to-day tasks while also observing guidelines on protecting the health of both employees and the public.
BLM said it had no plans to halt oil and gas lease sales in New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, or Wyoming, beginning this week and continuing next week.
Several environmental groups demanded the sales be postponed during the COVID-19 crisis. Other groups urged a temporary hold because of concerns with depressed revenues to taxpayers from the lease sales given much lower oil prices due to the virus and to faltering market conditions.
BLM Public Affairs Chief Chris Tollefson confirmed the agency would complete its legally mandated quarterly lease sales in an email earlier this week.
“Because we have moved to an online auction with a third-party contractor, there are no public health risks associated with carrying out this important mandate,” Tollefson added. “While the majority of the BLM staff is teleworking, any staff associated with the sale will be practicing social distancing, as well as other mitigation measures recommended by the CDC.”
EnergyNet conducts the BLM sales each quarter, with nearly 200,000 acres available next week. A BLM New Mexico State Office lease sale in February received bids totaling $20,389,528.00 for 66 parcels covering 16,784.64 acres.
As Western Wire previously reported, BLM moved its quarterly lease sales online in 2017 in an effort to increase participation in the sales and also to mitigate security concerns as lease sales by the agency in the preceding years had faced increased pressures from protesters and other disruptions.
In a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, dozens of Keep It in the Ground groups also requested the department “suspend major policy changes, changes to regulations, oil and gas lease sales and public comment periods” while the COVID-19 emergency continued, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Earthworks.
The Interior Department has opened national wildlife refuges and other BLM sites, free of admission, as visitor centers around the country close. This comes after National Park Service properties saw fees suspended earlier in the week.
“This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors at these incredible places,” Bernhardt said Wednesday. With current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urging “social distancing,” national parks and getting outdoors as winter turns to spring this week will “offer special outdoor experiences to recreate, embrace nature and implement some social distancing.”
“At a majority of park locations where it is currently possible to adhere to public health guidance, outdoor spaces remain open to the public, while many facilities will be closed,” NPS said.
The BLM-Utah office will remain closed after an earthquake struck the Salt Lake City area Wednesday. It’s the only closure reported so far.
Other agencies have moved most applicable work online, with employees encouraged to telework.
Earlier in the week, EPA Region 8 spokesman Rich Mylott told Western Wire “all EPA Region 8 offices are currently open, however most employees are electing to telework per agency guidance issued a few days ago.”
“We continue to perform our functions and responsibilities, although travel has been limited to mission-critical travel only,” Mylott added.
An EPA Region 8 employee in Montana has been diagnosed “presumed positive,” according to a staff email from regional administrator Greg Sopkin. The email was first reported by The Hill and confirmed independently by E&E News.
“The individual has had minimal contact outside of their immediate workspace. The common areas the individual may have contacted . . . are being disinfected over the weekend in accordance with CDC guidelines,” Sopkin added. Telework for employees in the Helena, Montana office extended through April 3, but the regional office would remain open at this time. Other offices were not affected, according to the email.
“EPA staff just got their first agency-wide message regarding COVID-19 from @EPAAWheeler, via video. ‘My expectation is that most everyone of the EPA team across the country is working at home unless there is a compelling mission critical reason for you to be in the office,’” New York Times reporter Lisa Friedman tweeted Thursday, quoting Wheeler.
“My highest priority is protecting your health and welfare. We have important work to do for the American public and they are counting on us to get it done,” Wheeler added.
The Department of Energy has also reported one employee with COVID-19.