The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Ceal Smith [Citizens for San Luis Valley Water Protection Coalition] (719) 256-5780;
Travis Stills [Energy Minerals Law Center] (970) 375-9231;
Bill Boteler [PEER] (202) 265-7337

Industry Lawyers Directed Baca Wildlife Refuge Drilling Study

Concerns of Refuge Scientists Overridden by Interior, Justice Officials


Industry attorneys have improperly collaborated with Bush
administration officials in an ongoing attempt to pave the way for oil
and gas exploration in Colorado's newest national wildlife refuge,
newly disclosed documents show. Emails, memos and other records show
lawyers in the U.S. Interior Department allowed 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 revisions by Lexam's attorney and industry-friendly Bush
officials significantly misrepresented the likely impact of drilling in
the Baca NWR, a refuge so new the public is not yet allowed on it. The
records were obtained as a result of the Freedom of Information Act
lawsuit filed by the Citizens for San Luis Valley Protection Coalition.

"The Interior Department is once again acting like a wholly owned
subsidiary of the oil industry," said PEER 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."

The documents show that:

  • Handwritten notes on internal drafts, presumably made by a
    lawyer in the Interior 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 invited Lexam to limit the scope of the
    Environmental Assessment's analysis to avoid inconvenient conclusions
    made by USFWS biologists regarding environmental impacts and lack of
    information regarding these;
  • Interior officials held
    meetings with industry attorneys and 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;
  • Lexam attorney David Bailey advised officials to eliminate discussion of the cumulative impacts of drilling on the refuge;
  • Lexam's attorney handpicked industry consultant ENSR to conduct the study;
  • DOI
    attorney Thomas Graf instructed the consultant to not consider the
    potential impact of long-term development if exploratory wells found
    natural gas;
  • Graf sent internal drafts to Bailey and others to line-edit the environmental assessment; and
  • Graf and Bailey discussed how to circumvent public comment on the study.

The records came to light only after protracted legal fights
led by a local coalition concerned about the impact of development on
the refuge itself and the Unconfined Aquifer, an enormous underground
water supply that's critical to the economy of the arid San Luis Valley.

The government still has not disclosed the specific changes made by
Lexam's attorney to internals drafts of the EA. The pending suit seeks
a court-ordered disclosure of those documents. A scheduling conference
is set for October 16, 2008.

"It's unbelievable that local citizens must keep
going back to federal court to find out what's going on while industry
simply calls upon their friends in the Solicitor's office to grease the
skids for their project," said Travis Stills, an attorney with the
Energy Minerals Law Center.

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. In
Denver, employees of the Mineral Management Service Royalty-In-Kind
program 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 Interior's Denver offices, the
MMS scandal also involves questionable practices in the selection and
use of industry contractors.

The 92,500-acre Baca NWR is next door to the Great Sand Dunes National
Park. Set against the stunning backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Range,
the refuge protects the Unconfined Aquifer and the largest
concentration of wetlands in the Southwest. The federal government
purchased the refuge for $33 million in 2000 to protect its "unique
hydrological, biological, educational and recreational values."
Although normally included in Refuge protection, the Baca mineral
interests were not secured in the purchase.

Drilling on the Baca NWR 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 of drilling. The National
Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado
Division of Wildlife and the Office of Archaeology and Historic
Preservation were among many who sharply criticized the study earlier
this year.

Local groups, including the Citizens for San Luis Valley Water
Protection Coalition and the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, are
asking the Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a full Environmental
Impact Statement on the drilling plan. An EIS requires a more
comprehensive examination of likely impacts than an environmental

"The government should consider all options, including buying out the
mineral rights to protect the refuge," said Ceal Smith, of the water
protection coalition. "Not only has the government rejected a hard look
at the impact of drilling, they're playing games to make sure it comes
out just the way industry wants. These people have no shame."

See the documents disclosed under Freedom of Information Act

Look at profile of Baca NWR in PEER report on America's Ten Most Imperiled Refuges

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.