Trump administration to move environmental review staff to states
The Interior Department is forcing key staff responsible for environmental reviews to move west as part of the Trump administration’s efforts to shrink the number of federal workers based in Washington, two people familiar with the plans told POLITICO.
The move is the latest by the Trump administration to eliminate environmental positions from Washington, D.C. and comes after the Department of Agriculture’s decision to transfer researchers whose jobs included studying climate change to a new headquarters in Kansas City.
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As part of the ongoing reorganization of the Interior Department, half of the Bureau of Land Management’s national environmental review team would be scattered to states across the West, a move that could slow or undermine the approval of permits for oil and gas and renewable energy project developments as well as construction of recreational paths, according to the people.
The jobs of six of the 12 BLM team members in Washington that coordinate the analysis into whether projects comply with the National Environmental Policy Act are being moved to Alaska, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana and Utah, according to a source familiar with the plan. Two will remain in D.C., including the branch chief, and the remainder will be assigned to state-level environmental review jobs, according to one source with direct knowledge of the plan.
Some of the team members are expected to quit BLM rather than make the move, so Interior will have to hire and train new staffers.
“It’s basically lopping the head off the animal,” said one person in the agency who has knowledge of the plan but was not authorized to speak to the press. “There will be nobody in the D.C. office to help guide the process.”
The NEPA review team members have not been given a deadline for agreeing to the move, the people added.
A second person with knowledge of the plan warned that rather than improving efficiency by moving staff out of Washington, Interior may actually hamper its operations. The employees in question are in charge of coordinating project analysis across states and shepherding projects that have finished review to the department’s decision makers in D.C. They also help translate a new administration’s policy priorities to staff working in different states.
“It’s going to slow things down, it’s not going to speed things up,” the person said of the planned staff relocations. “Roads, transmission lines, energy-related, horse-and-burro related. Whether you’re oil and gas or renewables or anything in between, it will slow things down.”
BLM spokesperson Jeff Krauss declined to comment on the transfers of the D.C.-based environmental review team or how such a split might impact permit times. Krauss also did not directly respond to questions about when BLM senior political staff are expected to move to Colorado.
“We are working to get them out there as expeditiously as possible,” Krauss said.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who is driving the relocation process, has touted the moves of at least two-thirds of BLM’s 550 D.C.-based positions as a way to increase efficiency at the agency that oversees the federal government’s vast land holdings.
But critics contend that Interior’s reorganization plans appear designed to push out career staff and give more leeway to political appointees to pick and choose which projects go forward.
“This administration pretends to make personnel moves based on clearly thought-out, perfectly legitimate criteria that it just can’t publicize right now,” House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said in a statement to POLITICO. “In fact, it’s been a clear scheme for a long time now to destroy our natural resources and the people who help us manage them responsibly.”
The reorganization plan has also run afoul of congressional budget makers. Appropriations committees in the House and Senate have cut funding for the reorganization project from bills for the coming fiscal year and directed the agency to halt the relocation project. Despite that, Interior has said “the BLM relocation is moving full speed ahead.”
“There are serious questions about both efficiency and effectiveness with the scattering that is currently being contemplated,” said Nada Culver, vice president of public lands and senior policy counsel at the National Audubon Society.
“My concern is that both will be affected,” Culver added. “Even more, that the administration continues on its current course of making decisions primarily by a few people at the department in D.C. with less and less room for input from the field and career staff, so the basis for the decisions is less and less sound.”
Oil and gas companies have long complained that the environmental review process takes too long to complete. Erik Milito, vice president of upstream of industry operations for trade association American Petroleum Association, didn’t comment on whether moving environmental review leadership team members to western states would impact permitting, but said it was important the NEPA process was handled effectively.
“Good government is essential to the advancement of domestic energy production on federal lands,” Milito siad. “We want a BLM that works, regardless of the location.”