Despite shutdown, Trump administration continues work to begin oil drilling in ANWR

Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. (USFWS)
Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. (USFWS)

As the partial government shutdown drags on, the Trump administration is making sure some Interior Department employees continue work on one of its biggest, most controversial priorities: opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Drilling opponents were quick to criticize the move, contrasting it with the overflowing trash cans and unattended public toilets in national parks managed by Interior, which have become a symbol of the continuing stalemate in Washington, D.C.

Emails obtained by Alaska’s Energy Desk show that on Jan. 3 — 13 days into the shutdown — Bureau of Land Management project coordinator Nicole Hayes wrote to community leaders in Alaska to schedule public meetings for the ongoing environmental review process needed to allow oil lease sales in the Arctic refuge.

When contacted Friday by Alaska’s Energy Desk, Hayes’ email account sent an automatic reply: “Due to the lapse in funding of the federal government budget, I am out of the office. I am not authorized to work during this time, but will respond to your email when I return to the office.”

The partial shutdown also isn’t stopping Trump’s Interior Department from pressing ahead with potentially allowing more oil development in another vast, federally managed area in the Arctic, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A.

The Bureau of Land Management confirmed it is going forward with previously scheduled public meetings on overhauling the NPR-A management plan in the North Slope communities of Utqiagvik on Fri., Jan. 4 and Nuiqsut on Sat., Jan. 5, despite many other Interior Department activities remaining frozen.

The agency is using funds left over from the previous fiscal year to pay for the work, according to acting BLM Alaska director Ted Murphy.

“This money will be used for labor and operations for staff and contractors involved. Work may continue on these projects as long as we have appropriated funds remaining,” Murphy said in a statement.

Interior officials declined to comment further.

But groups opposed to expanding oil development in Alaska’s Arctic criticized Interior’s decision to continue its NPR-A and Arctic refuge-related work during the partial shutdown.

One former Interior employee, now working for a law firm that represents environmental organizations that have sued the Trump administration over oil development, said it is “unusual” to press forward with public meetings during a shutdown.

“When I was with the government I never saw anything like that happen — generally, all non-essential work was basically shut down and employees are not even supposed to be checking their emails,” said Bridget Psarianos, a staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska who formerly worked as project manager for BLM’s Alaska office.

Psarianos asserted that the BLM Alaska employees who are continuing work to allow more oil development during the shutdown are acting under the authority of an administration “whose priorities are drilling on our public lands rather than performing essential government services, like picking up trash in National Parks.”

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