Merid Kense / YouTube Offshore Oil Drilling A History Documentary 1548524356.jpg...
Merid Kense / YouTube

No longer hindered by a Republican majority, House Democrats from the leadership down through the rank-and-file have been showing their teeth in a variety of ways all month. This week, one of the focus points has been the Interior Department.

Critics have blasted Interior for showing favoritism to the oil and gas industry during the 35-day government shutdown by calling some federal employees into work to issue drilling permits on public lands; to keep some national parks open by diverting entrance fees meant to cover visitor services to pay for routine operations; and to continue environmental reviews of proposed expansion of hunting and fishing in wildlife refuges, as well as moving ahead with revisions in the five-year leasing program for the Outer Continental Shelf, which would open almost all U.S. waters to drilling.

At issue is the nearly 150-year-old Antideficiency Act. This generally prohibits agencies from spending money they don’t have except to confront imminent threats to “the safety of human life or the protection of property.” The Justice Department has never prosecuted anyone for violating that 1870 law.

On Wednesday, Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee for agencies that include Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency, said she would conduct oversight hearings. “I can’t predict an outcome when I don’t know what the violations are or how severe they are. But I do believe the laws are being violated. The first thing you have to do is gather the evidence and we’re doing that”: 

The nonprofit group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) on Tuesday announced that it had asked the the Government Accounting Office (GAO) to “immediately investigate” the source of the funding allowing for the employees to return to work at agencies like BOEM [ Bureau of Ocean Energy Management] and the BLM [Bureau of Land Management], as well as the reasoning behind the decision.

“If they’re using these funds… they’re violating the [Antideficiency] Act,” Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director, told ThinkProgress.

On Thursday, the House Natural Resources Committee Democrats hosted a forum to look into the alleged favoritism shown to the oil and gas industry during the shutdown while operations affecting less powerful Americans are shuttered and federal employees try to make up for loss of their paychecks by driving for Uber. While this was not an official hearing since the committee has not yet been formally reconstituted, there were witnesses representing American Indians and environmental advocates. Several industry officials were invited to participate, but nobody from the Trump regime was there.

At the forum, Democratic Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California said of the shutdown: “People are struggling and our neighbors are suffering. The oil and gas industry has remained unscathed.”

The Interior Department, which oversees oil and gas development on federal lands and waters, has taken pains to ensure that the permits and other initiatives are immune from the shutdown — even as it closes parks, halts work on endangered species initiatives and cancels meetings on a proposed renewable energy project off the Massachusetts coast.

For instance, Interior’s Bureau of Land Management has issued permits to drill on public land and is preparing to sell new oil and gas leases — a reversal of the approach taken during the 2013 shutdown, when the Obama administration halted work on drilling permits and canceled at least one auction.

Meanwhile, 14 Democratic senators sent a letter to acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and acting director of the BOEM Walter Cruickshank to stop its revision of the Outer Continental Shelf leasing program and redirect any available money to “critical bureau functions that have been hampered by the ongoing government shutdown, rather than toward actions that directly benefit the oil industry”:

“While the oil industry might view a delay in the approval of new offshore drilling as an emergency, the American people deserve regulators who prioritize safety and environmental protection over political expediency and the wishes of moneyed special interests.

“BOEM was created in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, when it was clear that its predecessor agency was beholden to the very oil industry it was charged with overseeing. The decision to prioritize the oil industry’s wish list during the government shutdown makes clear that this Administration has allowed those same problems to take root again. The newfound characterization of these projects as essential paints a troubling picture of an agency dedicated to mitigating the consequences of the shutdown for a powerful and well-connected corporate lobby at the expense of the American people.”

The senators asked for a written response by Feb. 1 to seven questions regarding BOEM’s moves in forging ahead with the revisions to the OCS leasing plan.

Eventually, of course, the government will reopen for more than just three weeks and the myopic policy changes the BOEM is pushing will move forward without the need for calling in furloughed federal employees. Confronting the Trump regime’s ongoing favoritism to fossil fuel industries will then require grassroots and congressional actions that depend on something sturdier than an obscure 19th-century law that’s never been litigated.

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