Environmentalists threaten lawsuit as drilling continues despite shutdown

WASHINGTON — Environmentalists on Tuesday accused the Obama administration of illegally allowing oil companies to keep drilling on public lands during the government shutdown, even as officials erect barricades around national monuments and close park gates to visitors.

Continuing to allow oil and gas drilling on federal lands violates the Anti-Deficiency Act, said the Phoenix-based Center for Biological Diversity, citing a 19th century law that bars the government from incurring new financial obligations in the absence of congressionally appropriated funding.

Federal agencies have cited the law in decision to furlough workers, close national parks and cut off energy data streams.

At the Interior Department, the Bureau of Land Management has stopped issuing new and revised permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands. Offshore permits are still flowing out of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which is tapping non-appropriated funds to keep the work going.

Related story: Energy industry beginning to feel shutdown’s bite

But whether on land or offshore, existing oil and gas wells can keep flowing and drilling work can keep going too.

The result, says the Center for Biological Diversity, is a jarring situation where oil companies can keep treading on public lands, even as other visitors are barred from the territory.

“The Obama administration needs to get its priorities straight,” said Bill Snape, senior counsel at the center. “Big Oil should not have access to the public lands that are closed to the American people.”

Legal threat

In a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell dated Tuesday, Snape asks for a change in course.

“We can’t hike, camp or enjoy our nation’s public parks and monuments, but grazing, mining, logging, and oil and gas extraction continue in many cases without disruption, even though the shutdown has sent home many who enforce regulations designed to protect our lands and wildlife,” Snape wrote. “While private concessionaires serving the visitors have been forced to close on public lands, fossil fuel and timber companies continue to extract resources from those same lands.”

Snape threatened to file a lawsuit seeking an end to “these lawless extractive activities on our public’s lands,” absent an end to the government shutdown or a change in Interior Department policy.

An Interior Department spokesman said the letter would be reviewed once it is received.

The Office of Management and Budget reviewed agency and department contingency plans for handling a shutdown, specifically approving decisions to exempt some staff and activities for safety and other reasons.

But Snape said that even if some extractive activities are exempted under the OMB’s guidance, it’s hard to see how they can continue lawfully without “full staff to ensure robust compliance with safety and environmental laws.” For instance, while the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is still doing some environmental reviews to support individual oil and gas permit decisions, broader assessments are off limits as long as the government is shuttered.

Shutdown’s effect

Because previously permitted oil and gas development on public lands isn’t affected by the shutdown and companies generally begin seeking new approvals well before they are needed, the energy industry has been relatively insulated from it so far.

But there are signs that some oil and gas companies working in the Permian Basin and Bakken Formation are starting to get worried.

And former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar warned last week that while bigger companies may be able to tap a stockpile of drilling permits for their federal drilling leases, smaller companies that don’t will “take a hit unless the government opens soon.”