Industry embeds its own in the BLM

Mining and energy companies fund workers at land-management offices

  • As oil and gas drilling booms in the Uinta Basin, the BLM field office in Vernal, Utah, is using industry-paid workers to deal with the influx of drilling applications

    Lin Alder
 

Employees at the Bureau of Land Management field office in Vernal, Utah, were up to their ears in oil and gas drilling applications. So when an oil and gas trade group approached office manager Bill Stringer last year and offered to pay five consultants to help with the backlog, he thought it was a good idea.

Stringer’s office had 380 backlogged applications for oil and gas permits last year. That number is projected to grow to nearly 600 next year, with each application taking up to 180 days to process.

The so-called "hosted workers," who started in February, are employees of SWCA Inc., an environmental consulting firm. The Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States pays the cost of their salaries directly to the consulting firm, but they work in the Vernal office alongside 90 regular BLM employees.

"This is about finding a way to accomplish work without asking taxpayers to throw money at it," says Stringer. "We’re not doing anything that wouldn’t get done anyway, but we’re doing it more effectively."

The arrangement may be legal, but it is taking a beating from environmentalists. "This allows the industry to take the reins in approving their own permits," says Stephen Bloch, staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Still, it’s not the first time outside consultants have worked in BLM offices, and the controversial practice is becoming more common as the agency’s workload grows.

The first arrangement to raise eyebrows occurred in 2002, when two employees of Nevada Land and Resource Company worked in the BLM’s Ely and Carson City offices. The company, which was negotiating land exchanges with the BLM, provided the workers to do archaeological and real-estate-related tasks. Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, D, objected, and the BLM put an end to the arrangement several months later.

But that didn’t stop the practice. Now, both the Battle Mountain and Winnemucca field offices use industry-funded contractors. Jo Simpson, a spokeswoman for the Nevada BLM, says the workers, from third-party consulting firms, are paid by mining companies to do environmental analysis for mining operations. Five other workers from local governments and power utilities work in BLM offices in Las Vegas, Carson City and Ely, on rights-of-way applications and land inventory.

Over the past six years, the BLM has nearly quadrupled the number of oil and gas drilling permits it grants annually. It approved a record-setting 6,052 applications last year. Despite increasing that for its oil and gas program budget by over 50 percent since 2000, the agency can’t keep up with all the requests.

Between 2001 and 2003, energy companies, led by EnCana, pooled money to fund three workers to process drilling applications in the Pinedale, Wyo., office. In 2002, the Rawlins, Wyo., office used funds from a group of oil and gas companies, including British Petroleum, to hire a former BLM employee as a consultant.

In the Vernal area, oil and gas operators were frustrated by a BLM office that was constantly behind in processing their permit applications, says Andrew Bremner, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States. To resolve the problem, they worked out the hosted worker program with the office: "We’re just trying to help them along."

Stringer points out that the hosted workers have no final decision-making authority. And because they were hired through a third-party consulting firm, he says, they are insulated from the companies that fund them. For private consulting firms, though, completing work in a way that delivers a permit to the company paying them often makes the difference between getting a second contract or not, says Jody Freeman, a Harvard Law School professor.

"Most of the public would be shocked to find out how much of the work we think of as fundamentally governmental is being performed by private actors," says Freeman, who is writing a book about the consequences of widespread government contracting. "It’s especially troubling when those private actors themselves have an interest in the outcome of the work they’re performing."

After getting a temporary increase in funding from Washington in March, Stringer hired two of the contractors as official employees, moving them onto the federal payroll.

In July, the BLM announced a new plan to ask oil and gas companies to pay $4,000 for each drilling permit application, which could allow the agency to hire more permanent employees. But a late addition to the energy bill by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, will block such fees for the next 10 years.

The writer is an HCN intern.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...