The Bureau of Land Management has shuttered much of its agency's functions during the government shutdown, but in its Alaska office, the agency used leftover funds from the past year to hold public meetings over the past week regarding an agency plan that would make Arctic land available for oil and gas leasing purchases.
The Bureau of Land Management is part of the Interior Department, which has been closed since Dec. 22.
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The meetings took place Friday, Saturday and Wednesday in different cities across the state -- the last one was on day 19 of the government shutdown. A meeting scheduled for Thursday was postponed due to "weather conditions," according to a tweet from BLM Alaska.
The Bureau of Land Management's Alaska office publicized the meetings on its Facebook page.
In a letter to the Interior Department, House Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva criticized its decision to move forward with the meetings during a shutdown. He also commented that stakeholders were informed only the day before that the meetings would take place.
"Asking people to comment on two major development processes in the Arctic with huge potential environmental and human consequences without anyone in the agency able to answer questions defeats the purpose of the public participation process," the Arizona Democrat wrote.
Grijalva wrote that the "responsible and fair course of action" would be to reschedule the public meetings.
The agency's shutdown plan says BLM functions will cease except for "law enforcement, emergency response functions, and operations necessary for the safety of human life or the protection of property."
Out of over 9,000 employees, 1,530 BLM employees are exempt and required to continue working without pay -- 524 in full-time status and 1,006 on call. The plan names some of the offices that exempt employees work in, including staff "in Alaska working on the administration and regulation of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline."
The BLM Alaska office used carryover oil and gas appropriation funds from the past year to continue work related to the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. The meetings were initially scheduled for the first week of December, but due to the earthquake in Anchorage on November 30, they were postponed until January, according to a BLM spokesperson.
The agency issued a notice of intent to prepare an integrated activity plan and environmental impact statement for the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska at the end of November. In order to submit those plans, the agency is first required to hold a series of public meetings and have a public comment period.
The comment period on the action closes on January 22.
The plan and environmental impact statement would "ensure that BLM's land management will provide the opportunity ... to construct pipelines and other necessary infrastructure to bring oil and gas resources from offshore or adjacent leases to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System or a future gas pipeline," according to the agency's notice.
Grijalva's letter requests information from the department about what funds were used for the meetings, what funds BLM had at the beginning of the shutdown and how those funds are being spent.
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