U.S. lawmakers oppose work on Alaska drilling permits during shutdown

The oil and gas industry should not be spared the pain of the partial government shutdown, according to the chairman of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee.

Furloughed federal staffers brought in to work on oil and gas development in Alaska, say congressmen

An airplane flies over caribou from the Porcupine Caribou Herd on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. U.S. federal staffers working on plans for oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge despite the partial government shutdown. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/The Associated Press)

The oil and gas industry should not be spared the pain of the partial government shutdown, according to the chairman of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee.

Rep. Raul Grijalva on Tuesday sent a letter to Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt objecting to the department changing plans to allow employees to work on upcoming offshore lease sales, seismic permits and a five-year offshore oil and gas leasing plan in Alaska and elsewhere.

"Your department has continued to hold public meetings on oil and gas development on the North Slope of Alaska, refused to extend the comment period for leasing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and opened up the Bureau of Land Management field offices to allow drilling permits to continue to be issued," said Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona.

He called it outrageous that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management updated its contingency plan allowing employees to work to comply with the administration's America First energy strategy.

The administration cares only about its favourite industry, he said.

Caribou from the Porcupine Caribou Herd migrate onto the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. Several First Nations oppose oil drilling on the calving grounds of a caribou herd that is integral to their way of life. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Associated Press)

"One of the most striking features of the current government shutdown, brought about entirely by the President's insistence on building an entirely unnecessary border wall, is the way the administration has bent over backwards to ensure that the pain of the shutdown falls only on ordinary Americans and the environment, and not on the oil and gas industry," wrote Grijalva.

He said President Donald Trump's "temper tantrum" over a wall built on the border with Mexico has taken a toll, with 800,000 federal workers missing paychecks, Native Americans at risk of losing access to food and health care, travellers facing extended delays in airports and national parks piling up with trash.

Grijalva called on Bernhardt to reverse course, and if he refuses, to provide a briefing on the legal justification for what appeared to be a violation of the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits federal agencies from spending money in advance of an appropriation.

Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort in an email response said department officials would be happy to meet with the Natural Resources Committee as appropriate.

"And we are confident that we are fully meeting our legal obligations," she said.

Connie Gillette, chief of public affairs with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said by email the agency is using carry-over money appropriated for the 2018 fiscal year for the activities.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal, a Democrat from California, said federal workers are being brought in without pay to service the oil and gas industry. Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management staffers who deal with renewable energy remain furloughed, he said in a statement.

"If you are an oil and gas company awaiting a lease, there is a big open sign at the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management," Lowenthal said.