Shuttered agency continues efforts to open up drilling in refuge, reserve

An agency closed by the federal shutdown has continued working on the Trump administration’s pro-drilling agenda, supporting efforts to open up oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and on another set of closed federal lands in Alaska.

Despite being shuttered, the Bureau of Land Management has worked to plan and hold meetings as part of environmental reviews required before drilling can occur in the refuge and on environmentally sensitive lands in the larger National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Joe Balash, an assistant secretary for the Interior Department that oversees BLM, confirmed Monday the agency is advancing efforts in the two areas, despite a shutdown stretching into its third week on Monday.

The agency planned to explain its position for doing so on Tuesday, Balash said.

Alaska’s congressional delegation supports BLM’s efforts, spokespeople said.

“One of Interior’s essential missions is producing energy for the good of the country," said an email from a spokeswoman with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski. "What they’re doing to advance development in the NPR-A and 1002 Area is fully legal, a top priority, and we strongly support it.”

Nicole Hayes, a project coordinator at BLM, sent an email to some community leaders in Alaska on Thursday, to schedule meetings associated with an environmental review required for leasing to occur in ANWR, according to a story in APRN.


Hayes could not be reached Tuesday. Automatic email replies from her office said she is “not authorized” to work because of the lapse in funding.

Also on Thursday, Stephanie Rice, a BLM planning coordinator, announced in an email to some Alaska community leaders that public meetings for the review process in NPRA would go on as originally planned, despite the shutdown.

Rice’s email was sent to the Anchorage Daily News by Tim Woody, with The Wilderness Society.

“Despite the shutdown, BLM is still racing to drill,” Woody said in the email.

“So we can’t keep national parks functioning, but BLM staff can proceed with efforts to drill in the Arctic?” he said.

An automatic email reply from Rice’s office Monday said she was allowed to work “intermittently” during the shutdown.

Public meetings associated with the review process in NPRA were held Friday night in Utqiagvik, and Saturday in Nuiqsut, a village located inside the NPRA. Additional meetings are planned for Wainwright on Wednesday and Point Lay on Thursday.

Nuiqsut attendance was light, said Eunice Brower, an employee with the tribal government there.

Some residents thought the meeting would not be held, given the shutdown. They had made other plans, she said. She said two days' notice for that community was not enough.

“They should reschedule it and give adequate time for people to prepare comments,” she said. “This is a big area and people use these waters and lands to get fish, caribou, geese, ducks.”

Suzanne Little, with The Pew Charitable Trusts, said she had been trying for days to reach BLM officials, without success, to see if the meetings would still be held despite the shutdown.

It wasn’t until Rice sent out the email Thursday that Little learned the meetings would still happen, after the agency apparently found previously appropriated funds.

Little had just canceled her flights from Anchorage. She rescheduled.

Thirteen people or less attended each of the meetings in Utqiagvik and Nuiqsut, Little said.

“Uncertainty about whether a meeting will be held or not during a government shutdown hurts public participation,” she said.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or