The Crestone Eagle, October 2008:

Industry lawyers directed wildlife refuge drilling study, concerns of scientists overridden by Interior officials

Crestone—In the wake of the Inspector General’s $5.3M investigation exposing oil lobbyists lavishing favors on U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) employees in the Denver Office of Minerals Management Service, documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Citizens for San Luis Valley Wilderness Protection Coalition (WPC) points to far more wide-reaching corruption plaguing Interior.

Emails, memos and other official records show lawyers in the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of the Solicitor allowed industry lobbyists and attorneys for the Canadian firm, Lexam Inc., to improperly influence the analysis of Lexam’s plan to drill exploratory wells in the Baca National Wildlife Refuge.

“The Interior Department is once again acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of the oil industry,” said PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to recent reports of Interior staff partying and sleeping with oil lobbyists. “These documents provide the inside view of how supposedly objective reviews are manipulated and skewed by those who stand to profit.”

Handwritten notes on internal drafts, presumably made by a lawyer in the Interior Department Solicitor’s office, emphatically directed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to assess the drilling impacts of Lexam’s proposed drilling plan. “NO!!! The drilling is not part of the proposed action!!”

DOI attorney Thomas Graf worked closely with Lexam’s attorney David Bailey to limit the scope of the EA analysis and push aside important concerns of FWS scientists regarding environmental impacts. According to Mark Salvo, with Earth Island Guardians, Grafserved as the “eyes and ears” for Julie MacDonald, former DOI deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks who resigned amidst controversy over her inappropriate involvement in editing, commenting on, and reshaping the Endangered Species Program’s scientific reports. Salvo’s group was instrumental in getting a court order requiring the FWS to reassess the decisions in light of Graf and MacDonald’s interference.

Interior officials also held meetings with industry attorneys including Thomas Sansonetti, a former top attorney in the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice from 2001-2005, whose role has not been disclosed by the government.

Some other significant findings of the FOIA documents include:

  • Lexam attorney David Bailey advised officials to eliminate discussion of the cumulative impacts of drilling on the refuge;
  • Lexam attorney David Bailey handpicked the contractor ENSR to conduct the study;
  • DOI attorney Thomas Graf instructed ENSR not to consider the potential impact of long-term development if exploratory wells found natural gas;
  • Graf sent internal drafts of the environmental assessment to Bailey and others to review and line-edit;
  • Graf and Bailey discussed how to circumvent public comment on the study.

The records came to light only after a protracted legal fight led by WPC. The government still has not disclosed the specific changes made by Lexam’s attorney to internal drafts of the EA. The pending suit seeks a court-ordered disclosure of those documents. A scheduling conference is set for October 16, 2008.

“The back and forth between Graf, Sansonetti, and Bailey makes a mockery of the USFWS role as surface owner with duties to prevent unreasonable use and occupancy of the federal surface estate —a right which the federal court has recognized is co-equal with the mineral right in Colorado,” says Travis Stills, attorney for the Energy Minerals Law Center representing the WPC.

The revelations in the newly released documents come on the heels of a series of scathing reports about inappropriate relationships between Interior Department officials and industry. Employees of the Mineral Management Service’s Royalty In Kind program in the Lakewood, Colorado office were found to have engaged in sex, substance abuse, and accepted trips and gifts from industry officials in exchange for preferential treatment of industry contracts. Although headlines focused on the scandalous activities in the Interior Department’s Denver offices, the MMS scandal also involves questionable practices in the selection and use of industry contractors.

Drilling on the Baca NWR has been a major concern to citizens of the San Luis Valley and has gained considerable national attention since it was proposed in 2006. The FWS received more than 48,000 letters criticizing the draft study and demanding that the agency do a better job of assessing the potential impacts on nearby communities, endangered species, sensitive wetlands and aquifers that the Refuge was established in 2000 to protect. The Great Sand Dunes National Park adjacent to the Refuge, Environmental Protection Agency, Colorado Division of Wildlife and Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation sharply criticized the study earlier this year.

“The overreaching involvement of industry-friendly DOI attorneys, lobbyists and Lexam’s lawyer who know nothing about the Baca NWR explains why the resulting assessment was so inadequate”, says Ceal Smith, consultant for the WPC.

The agencies are in the final stages of deciding whether to call for a more thorough Environmental Impact Study of Lexam’s proposal to drill on the Baca NWR or to allow the drilling to go forward. “USFWS has every reason to scrap this study and initiate a full analysis that seriously considers a minerals buyout,” says Chris Canaly, Director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council who filed the lawsuit forcing FWS to do the study. “If there ever was a place unsuited for oil and gas development, the Baca National Wildlife Refuge is it.”

Additional information
Documents disclosed under Freedom of Information Act:

PEER’s report on America’s Ten Most Imperiled Refuges:

For more on the DOI Inspector General’s Report on MMS scandal:

Contact the WPC at: