BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A conservation group can seek details from the Trump administration on whether it followed recommendations from an illegally created industry advisory group to ease rules for oil, gas and coal extraction, according to a federal court ruling.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy said in a late Thursday ruling that there was “a significant question” on whether the administration had followed the advice of the Royalty Policy Committee.
The panel created under former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was disbanded in April 2019. Molloy ruled in August that it had been established in violation of public transparency laws and therefore the Interior Department could not follow its recommendations.
The judge’s latest ruling allows the Montana-based Western Organization of Resource Councils to request documents, depositions from administration officials and other material that could reveal what happened with the panel’s recommendations, said attorney Travis Annatoyn with Democracy Forward, which is representing the group in the case.
Annytoyn said any approvals of drilling permits since August 2019 that can be tied back to the panel’s recommendations would represent a violation of Molloy’s previous order.
“That could in theory undermine the basis for approvals for (oil and gas drilling) across wide swaths of the country,” Annatoyn said.
Interior Department spokesman Nick Goodwin said the agency was working on a response to the ruling. Government attorneys had argued in court filings that the agency’s policies were developed separately from the committee’s recommendations.
The policy committee, which was formed in 2017, had its membership dominated by industry representatives and officials from energy-producing states.
The 20-member panel was supposed to find ways to remove barriers to drilling and mining while making sure taxpayers aren’t shortchanged by energy companies
It recommended quicker approvals of of oil and gas lease sales in the Arctic, fewer restrictions on drilling for oil and gas and letting coal companies largely self-determine the value of fuel they sell on the export market.
The panel was disbanded in April 2019 without explanation, as a legal challenge over its creation was pending.
Royalties from publicly owned energy reserves are distributed among federal, state and tribal governments, and billions of dollars are at stake. In fiscal year 2017, the government passed out $7.1 billion in royalties on oil, gas and coal extracted from federal lands, federal offshore areas and Native American lands, according to the Interior Department, which manages most federally owned energy.
Zinke rejected a recommendation to lower royalty rates for offshore oil and gas production.