The acting director of the Bureau of Land Management on Friday underscored what he called the importance of the oil and gas industry to rural western Colorado, apparently alluding to this week's Halliburton layoffs in Grand Junction to make his point.
"The development of these resources is the life's blood for these people," William Perry Pendley said while appearing on a panel at a Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Fort Collins.
Pendley pointed to the role the BLM plays in helping provide oil and gas, recreation and other jobs.
"At the end of the day for the local community it's life or death, is that company going to be able to open up. We just had a closure on the Western Slope of a big office. That's a big blow to a western community," he said.
Pendley apparently was referring to the news that broke earlier this week that energy services provider Halliburton, while not closing its Grand Junction office altogether, was laying off 178 employees there.
The BLM recently decided to make Grand Junction the new home of its national headquarters, which are currently in Washington, D.C. Twenty-seven largely high-level BLM jobs are to be moved to the city and some 300 altogether are being moved from the capital to Western states.
News of the Halliburton layoffs this week also drew the attention of U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who on Twitter linked it to the passage this year by Colorado's Democrat-controlled Legislature of Senate Bill 181. That measure overhauls how oil and gas development will be regulated in the state.
"The anti-energy bill from the Colorado Democrats is having a real-life impact on hardworking Colorado families, and there is no denying it is hurting our economy. The war on energy workers and their families must stop now," Gardner tweeted.
Halliburton said in a statement this week that the Grand Junction layoffs were due to local market conditions and reduced customer activity, but also noted that altogether it was laying off about 650 people across several states in its Rockies region. Comments from companies who have oil and gas assets locally, and contract with Halliburton and other service providers, indicate that low natural gas prices and concerns related to SB 181 both are contributing to slow drilling activity locally.
Pendley's comments Friday came during discussions that focused in good part on climate-change concerns and how the BLM is addressing them. Before joining the BLM, Pendley had made comments dismissive of the concept of climate change. On Friday he said he's a lawyer and not a scientist, and defers to his boss, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who Pendley said believes climate change is real, mankind has an impact and climate change needs to be addressed.
"Nope, not going to clarify," Pendley said at one point Friday when pressed about his earlier position.
He described those views as his personal opinions, and referred to Bernhardt's stance.
"I'm a Marine, I follow orders. He's told me the way it's going to be and that's the way it's going to be," he said.
Pendley similarly said that his past comments on disposal of public lands are immaterial to his job, as the Trump administration opposes the wholesale disposal of such lands.
Regarding climate change, Pendley said the courts have instructed the government to take a hard look at greenhouse gas impacts when doing environmental reviews of solar, wind, oil and gas and other projects.
Shea Loper, director of U.S. government relations with oil and gas developer Encana Corp., said at Friday's forum that companies are used to tracking litigation, but certainty is important to them. He pointed to the possible benefit of developing a common-sense approach for considering climate-change impacts in federal agency decisions.
That prompted Pendley's observations about what he said is a need for certainty for communities reliant on BLM-authorized activities such as oil and gas development. He cited how BLM-approved projects and facilities can help pay for schools, hospitals and law enforcement and return revenues to state and local governments.
"That's the certainty that we'd like to deliver on," he said.
Panelist Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University—San Marcos, said fossil-fuel development has been economically important to quite a few tribes. But she said there has been a cost that she calls a "Faustian bargain" that has involved things such as impacts on the land and even murders of indigenous women in areas of industry activity.
While some panelists on Friday cited climate change as the biggest challenge facing public lands, Pendley said he thinks the top challenge is the 88,000 wild horses and burros that are "causing havoc on the lands."
Panelist Whit Fosburgh, president and chief executive officer of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said while some western Colorado towns depend on oil and gas development, activities such as hunting and biking also depend on public lands. He said developing those lands can impact animal herds and associated hunting.
Pendley indicated a willingness to address such issues when it comes to oil and gas, noting that Colorado Gov. Jared Polis had asked the BLM to defer offering some lease parcels due to concerns about impacts to wildlife corridors.
"We said, 'aye-aye, sir,' and we removed those tracts, so we can do it and we have done it," he said.
Asked about the position taken by some Democratic presidential candidates against further oil and gas leasing of public lands and waters, Pendley said the result would be "absolute devastation" to the West and the country. He said it would be "absolutely insane" to leave oil and gas undeveloped in the continental shelf beneath U.S. ocean waters, the source of the majority of domestic oil and gas resources.
Pendley also defended the BLM's plans to relocate headquarters jobs from criticism that the agency would be left out of national decisions that involve interagency discussions occurring in Washington.
"The bottom line is that the people we're working with are out in the field," he said.
He said that's where BLM leaders need to be as well.
"The decisions aren't really made in Washington," he said.