Watching Government: Overturning the parting shots

Jan. 9, 2017
Departing administrations often encourage political appointees to complete reports and regulations before their successors arrive soon after the new president's inauguration. 

Departing administrations often encourage political appointees to complete reports and regulations before their successors arrive soon after the new president's inauguration. It's hardly surprising, since the departing officials want to leave matters in what they consider the best possible condition. It also happened frequently during the final weeks of Barack Obama's presidency.

One dramatic example came on Dec. 16, 2016, when the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming completed a final supplemental environmental impact statement on whether to withdraw consent for the US Bureau of Land Management to offer oil and gas leases on 39,490 acres within its boundary.

"Based upon overwhelming public comment and significant recreation, wildlife, and watershed values identified, no leasing remains the preferred alternative," the announcement said.

Because of the project's long history and the significant public interest and concern for the proposal, expressed in more than 62,000 comments on the draft SEIS, US Agriculture Undersecretary Robert Bonnie elected to retain his authority to sign the project's record of decision, it added.

This is scheduled to happen on Jan. 16-30 days after the final SEIS's publication in the Federal Register, and 4 days before Donald J. Trump's inauguration.

Kathleen Sgamma, the new president of the Western Energy Alliance in Denver, wasn't surprised. "We are well aware that the Obama administration is rushing to get as many job-killing regulations in as possible before its final expiration, but this retroactive cancelation of leases takes it a step further," she said on Dec. 19. The FSEIS is intended to result in the cancelation of 39,490 acres of leases BLM sold on the forest's behalf in 2006, she noted.

"Not only is it another attempt to rewrite history, but the Agriculture Department [of which the Forest Service is a part] isn't even following basic procedures required by the National Environmental Policy Act," Sgamma said. "Because following regulation and the rule of law would mean the formal decision can't be made until after Jan. 20, Undersecretary Bonnie simply flourishes his pen and ignores both."

Similar moves elsewhere

The retroactive cancelation of these leases would join similar moves earlier in the White River National Forest in Colorado and the Badger-Two Medicine area of Montana, Sgamma said. "Retroactively denying property rights long after those rights were granted is contrary to basic American jurisprudence," she said.

"I don't believe any of the leases have been canceled," Sgamma told OGJ on Jan. 3 via telephone. "RODs may have been signed, but the leases remain valid." She hopes the leaseholders will fight, and the new administration will overturn, any cancellations. "At the very least, it would show that it respects property rights," WEA's president said.

About the Author

Nick Snow

NICK SNOW covered oil and gas in Washington for more than 30 years. He worked in several capacities for The Oil Daily and was founding editor of Petroleum Finance Week before joining OGJ as its Washington correspondent in September 2005 and becoming its full-time Washington editor in October 2007. He retired from OGJ in January 2020.