INTERIOR DEPT. MAY HAVE VIOLATED COURT ORDER, USED RECOMMENDATIONS FROM UNLAWFUL COMMITTEE, COURT GRANTS DISCOVERY
A federal court granted Democracy Forward and the Western Organization of Resource Councils discovery against the Trump administration. The Court’s action signals concern that the Department of the Interior could be violating the Court’s prior order by continuing to rely on recommendations from the Royalty Policy Committee after the Court concluded that the Committee’s creation and operation was unlawful. In particular, the Court said DOI’s move to limit environmental analysis for new onshore drilling permits “raises a significant question” of potential noncompliance.Learn More
In March 2017, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke created the Royalty Policy Committee comprised of industry insiders and campaign donors to advise the Bureau of Land Management on the royalties generated from federal leasing of public mineral deposits. The Committee’s priority was crafting royalty policy that best served the needs of the fossil fuels industry: Secretary Zinke has stacked the Committee with representatives of companies that would have benefited from lower barriers to leasing, particularly reduced fees for resource extraction and less stringent environmental reviews. We filed suit on behalf of the Western Organization of Resource Councils to stop it.
The Committee operated in secret to advance industry interests. The RPC failed to disclose the timing of its subcommittee meetings, failed to disclose the materials used by the Committee and its subcommittees, and limited the public’s ability to address the Committee. But under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), agency membership of advisory committees like the RPC must be transparent, free of conflicts of interest, and composed of representatives of other stakeholders in public minerals, such as the communities who cope with the environmental degradation associated with leasing.
We filed suit against Secretary Zinke and the Department of the Interior on behalf of communities who advocate for sustainable leasing policy. We asked the Court to declare that the Committee was unlawful and to require Interior—now led by Secretary David Bernhardt—and the Trump administration to comply with the law. We also sought emergency relief to open the Committee’s proceedings to the public and to add more diverse membership to the Committee.
After the court rejected the government’s attempt to dismiss our lawsuit, the Trump administration disbanded the RPC in April 2019.
In August 2019, the Court declared that the RPC’s formation was unlawful and barred Interior from relying on or using any recommendations provided by what it called a “tainted” RPC. Ignoring applicable transparency laws, the Trump administration sought to transfer public lands policy to the fossil fuel industry via a secretive advisory committee, but the rule of law prevailed. In January 2020, the Court granted us discovery against the Dept. of the Interior after expressing concern the administration may have violated the Court’s order barring the Department from relying on the RPC’s tainted recommendations.
March 29, 2017
Secretary Zinke chartered the new Royalty Policy Committee.
The Committee was announced to the public on April 3, 2017.
February 28, 2018
The Royalty Policy Committee held a full committee meeting.
In this meeting, Committee members proposed and approved dozens of recommendations designed to benefit industry. These recommendations were made to Secretary Zinke over the objections of the public.
June 6, 2018
The Royalty Policy Committee held a second committee meeting, at which it did the same thing.
August 7, 2018
We filed suit on behalf of the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC).
WORC represents landowners, ranchers, and conservationists whose interests and livelihood are affected by increased federal leasing, and who benefit from full and fair royalties paid by the extractive industry. WORC and similar organizations have been shut out of the Committee’s membership deliberations.
November 28, 2018
We moved for a preliminary injunction against the Department, seeking to halt Committee business until Secretary Zinke complies with the law.
January 24, 2019
The court rejected the Trump administration’s attempt to dismiss our lawsuit.
In a partial denial of the administration’s motion to dismiss, the court is requiring the administration to explain why the public interest is served by delegating development of public lands and minerals policy to the fossil fuels industry. The administration must now demonstrate that the full RPC is not rubber stamping subcommittee recommendations harmful to ranchers, landowners, taxpayers, or conservationists. The administration must also show that it has released all materials generated for or by the full Committee.Learn More
April 21, 2019
Trump Administration Disbanding Royalty Policy Committee
Following pressure from our lawsuit, the Administration appears to have disbanded the RPC by allowing its charter to lapse. We and WORC are pressing forward in our legal challenge to stop the administration from relying on recommendations made by the illegally chartered RPC, and to force DOI to release records.Learn More
August 13, 2019
Court Blocks Interior From Using Committee’s Recommendations
The Court was unsparing in its criticism of the RPC’s formation, stating that "[t]he agency had the obligation and opportunity to comply with FACA from the start. It did not do so…[and] it cannot now rely on recommendations from an advisory committee whose very existence flies in the face of FACA."
January 17, 2020
DISCOVERY GRANTED TO EXPLORE WHETHER INTERIOR VIOLATED COURT ORDER
The Court expressed concern that the DOI could be violating a court order by continuing to rely on recommendations from the illegal RPC.Learn More