Interior leaders talk progress on priorities after year under Trump

  • Deputy Secretary of Department of Interior David Bernhardt, third from left alongside former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, acting Secretary of Health and Human Services Eric Hargan, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump, is seen during a Nov. 1, 2017, cabinet meeting at the White House. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is to Trump’s left. Bernhardt and former Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash, now the Assistant Interior Secretary overseeing the bureaus of Land Management, Ocean Energy Management, Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the Office of Surface Mining, updated stakeholders on Alaska priorities on March 8 in Anchorage. (Photo/Evan Vucci/AP)

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke introduced himself and his department’s priorities to Alaskans in person last May when he said the state is a lynchpin to achieving American energy dominance.

Deputy Interior Secretary Dave Bernhardt and Assistant Secretary Joe Balash, a former Alaska Natural Resources commissioner, were back in Anchorage March 8 to report on the progress of Interior’s work during the first year of the Trump administration.

“We had a very, very productive year if you compare our policy development to prior administrations,” Bernhardt told the biweekly breakfast gathering of Alaska Support Industry Alliance members.

A key piece of that policy has been issuing executive orders and working with Congress through the Congressional Review Act to rescind orders and rules issued under the Obama administration, which Bernhardt referred to as a “wide-ranging deregulatory agenda.” He estimated the administration was able to cut about half of the regulations it wants to in its first year.

“I think you can capsulate our regulatory vision in a couple of sentences,” he said. “We’re not willing to sacrifice health, safety or the environmental standards but we are committed to being a good neighbor, respecting the role of other governments and being passionate about ensuring people have access to our public lands.”

Bernhardt served in the Interior Department during the George W. Bush administration as the Interior solicitor in charge of the U.S.-Canada International Boundary Commission, among other roles.

The Interior leaders were in Alaska in part for meetings on the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s push to revise the 2019-24 Outer Continental Shelf Lease Sale Program and prepare for onshore lease sales of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The draft OCS lease sale plan would reopen many areas nationwide that were previously closed to oil and gas leasing by Obama, including the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

“We have an opportunity as Alaskans to get a lot done and see a lot done,” said Balash, who oversees the bureaus of Land Management, Ocean Energy Management, Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the Office of Surface Mining. “Every day I get to work on something related to Alaska.”

Bernhardt said Balash’s work will likely continue to be Alaska-centric as the Bureau of Land Management should be publishing a Notice of Intent to initiate the environmental impact statement process for ANWR lease sales within several weeks.

A component of the tax cut bill passed by Congress in December mandates the Interior Department to hold two oil and gas lease sales with at least 400,000 available acres for the 1.5 million-acre ANWR coastal plain within the next decade.

And while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service typically manages refuge activity, the rider also directs the lease sales to be managed similarly to the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which means BLM, under Balash, is the lead agency.

When asked how long the ANWR leasing environmental review will take, Bernhardt noted that he sent out a memo to Interior agencies stressing that he expects environmental impacts statements done in a year.

“We’re starting this process very, very soon and I take my memos very, very seriously,” he said.

Balash said he is also working to increase the acreage available to industry in the NPR-A to the west of Prudhoe Bay.

The U.S. Geological Survey in late December updated its assessment of the recoverable oil in the NPR-A to a mean estimate of 8.8 billion barrels in the 23 million-acre reserve and adjacent state lands. The new assessment was directed by Zinke during his May trip to Alaska and is largely based on recent oil discoveries in the area sourced from the Nanushuk and Torok geologic formations by Armstrong Energy, Caelus Energy and ConocoPhillips.

A 2010 assessment of the NPR-A pegged the mean oil estimate at just 896 million recoverable barrels.

The BLM offered all 900 lease tracts covering 10.3 million acres in its fall 2017 NPR-A lease sale, but bidding was subdued other than ConocoPhillips purchasing acreage around its declared discoveries.

The management plan for the NPR-A, finalized in 2013, removed many of the most prospective oil and gas areas in the northeast corner of the reserve from leasing in order to protect the Teshepuk Lake caribou herd and other subsistence resources in the area.

Balash acknowledged that expanding the leasable acreage in the NPR-A is “something that’s going to require a lot of care and consultation with the North Slope Borough.”

However, he mentioned to ConocoPhillips Alaska leaders in the audience that he has a copy of the draft supplemental EIS for the company’s Greater Mooses Tooth-2 development, indicating it should be out for public review soon.

GMT-2 is a roughly $1 billion oil project the company expects will have peak production upwards of 30,000 barrels per day. GMT-1 is currently under construction and expected to start production next year, also at about 30,000 barrels per day at peak.

In January 2017 ConocoPhillips executives said the EIS, being evaluated by the BLM, was moving slower than expected. A spokeswoman for the agency said then that a record of decision for GMT-2 was expected in early 2018, which would have made for an EIS process of about two-and-a-half years.

On the broader issue of what is at times an arduously slow EIS process when managed by Interior agencies, Bernhardt said he has given guidance to agency officials at the state level that EIS planning and business processes need to move faster — aside from changing environmental regulations or other requirements.

Bernhardt linked part of the problem back to 2001 when the then-Interior secretary chief of staff ordered all Interior-related Federal Register notices be sent to him as a means of monitoring the department’s activities. It ended up spurring what Bernhardt referred to as a “surname process.”

“Let me tell you that if you don’t know what a surname process is you should just know that it’s evil,” he quipped.

The process grew into up to 30 officials in some cases demanding they be able to sign off on Federal Register notices, according to Bernhardt, which in the case of an EIS usually means three times — once each for the Notice of Intent to file an EIS and the Notice of Availability for both the draft and final versions of the document. As a result, the surname process often leads to upwards of 90 days of delay each time a notice is issued, or 270 days in total.

BLM took 11 months to publish the Notice of Intent for the GMT-2 EIS, according to ConocoPhillips.

Bernhardt said he is trying a pilot process in which state agency directors and an attorney sign off on such documents and agency and department leaders then collectively have about two weeks to approve them.

“The purpose of (the National Environmental Policy Act) is to make sure we take a hard look at issues — that we’ve looked at a reasonable range of alternatives, that we have had public participation to ensure that we as federal decision-makers are more fully informed before we make our decision, whatever it’s going to be,” he said. “And the documents that are written today, when they’re 8,000, 10,000, 25,000 pages, I can tell you that no one on the planet reads them so they’re not serving the purpose they’re intended to.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

03/14/2018 - 12:09pm