NRDC Reveals More Energy Task Force Records

WASHINGTON (June 28, 2004) - Despite the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal last week to open more Cheney energy documents to the public, the Bush administration has not been able to keep everything secret.

On June 1, in response to a federal court order, the Department of Justice provided NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) with several hundred more documents related to the work of the task force. These latest documents -- generally dating from early 2001 through November 2002 -- relate to the implementation of energy policy recommendations by the Interior Department. (The Department of Justice must disclose additional Interior documents -- dating from November 2002 to the present -- on July 1.)

NRDC's exhaustive review over the past few weeks of the latest batch of task force records illustrates how, as part of the Bush administration's energy plan, the Interior Department has pushed energy development as the primary activity on federal lands -- rather than a balanced land management approach that considers other values, such as recreation and wilderness protection. Moreover, the documents provide several examples of specific industry requests that were quickly granted, as well as efforts to exploit rising gas prices as a way to justify more drilling on public lands.


Many of the latest documents from the Department of Justice are blank or heavily redacted. But the following items are noteworthy:

  • Public opinion research (dated 5/16/01) from focus groups in several cities provided by the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA) to the Interior Department. The research, which suggests how to talk about energy issues, emphasizes using rising gas prices to promote increased drilling. DOI077-0212 to 218. The research concludes, "language that . . . emphasizes price increases in gasoline and natural gas and the California situation resonates with voters." Another finding: "Gasoline price stability is the single most potent argument for opening up ANWR."

  • White House Memorandum (dated 6/5/01) from Albert Hawkins, Assistant to the President and Secretary to the Cabinet, requesting agency assistance in promoting actions to expedite energy-related projects. DOI088-0050-51.

  • Memorandum (dated 8/22/01) from Interior Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles to the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, requesting an active role for the Interior Department in "carrying out the May 19, 2001, Executive Order to rationalize permitting for energy production." Griles highlights his agency's "special interest and expertise" in "streamlining the multi-agency permitting process for Outer Continental Shelf activities," "consistency determinations under the Coastal Zone Management Act," "Endangered Species Act Seciton 7 consultations," and "consistent standards and approaches to water discharge permits among EPA's Regions." (The latter issue is critical to coalbed methane development).

  • A letter (dated 10/31/01) from Public Lands Advocacy -- a self-described "non-profit organization whose members include major and independent petroleum companies" -- to James Connaughton, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The letter advocated accelerating changes to federal Resource Management Plans (RMPs) to allow more energy development in areas including "western Montana and Sierra and Otero Counties, and San Juan Basin in New Mexico." DOI079-207 to 0213. The Bureau of Land Management subsequently implemented such changes. (BLM, Instruction Memorandum 2002-081, Time Sensitive Plans, National Planning Support Team and Action Plan for Time Sensitive Plans, available here.) The letter from Public Lands Advocacy also requested exempting oil and gas development activities from a Clinton-era rule protecting "roadless" areas in national forests. The Bush administration's rollback of the roadless rule is well documented.

  • A letter (dated 12/22/03) from the Industrial Energy Consumers of America to Joshua Bolten, Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, requesting royalty relief for offshore deep gas wells. DOI077-0063 to 0064. A month later, the Minerals Management Service issued a regulation to do just that. (MMS, Oil and Gas and Sulphur Operations in the Outer Continental Shelf -- Relief or Reduction in Royalty Rates -- Deep Gas Provisions, 69 Fed. Reg. 3492 (January 26, 2004).


Per the court's order, NRDC also received a Vaughn Index, identifying the 665 documents withheld or redacted by the Department of Justice. This list provides tantalizing insight into the steps the administration has taken to exploit America's public lands for profit, primarily by limiting environmental review and public participation. This list includes:

  • A slide presentation by the Interior Department for Vice President Cheney regarding "NEP [National Energy Plan] Implementation at Interior"

  • A slide presentation on "BLM Oil & Gas Permitting Performance Review"

  • A briefing for Interior Secretary Gale Norton on "The Bureau of Land Management's role in Implementing the President's National Energy Policy"

  • An email from Erick Kaarlela, head of BLM's National Energy Office, regarding "TSP [Time Sensitive Plans] -- Status" (NRDC Note: These are the RMP amendments accelerated by BLM to allow for increased energy development on public lands.)

  • A briefing by Erick Kaarlela on "UT APDs [Applications for Permits to Drill]"
  • Several emails from Erick Kaarlela discussing "Major Energy Projects -- Utah"

  • A Memorandum from VA Stephens, White House staffer to James Cason, Interior Associate Deputy Secretary, regarding the 500 KV Transmission Line in Phoenix, AZ (NRDC Note: Stephens spearheaded the efforts of the White House Energy Project Streamlining Task Force to eliminate roadblocks from projects the industry wants approved.)

  • A Memorandum from VA Stephens "Re: Federal Leasing in Sierra and Otero Counties, New Mexico"

  • A Memorandum from VA Stephens "Re: Proposed Transfer of Inspection and Enforcement Authorities for Oil and Gas Activities to the States"

  • A Briefing for Secretary Norton "Re: Energy Opportunities in Interior Department Programs"

  • A Briefing for Secretary Norton "Re: CBM [Coalbed Methane Development] Permitting and NEPA Workload"

  • A Memorandum on "Alaska Target Accomplishments"

  • A Memorandum from Interior Deputy Secretary Griles, "Re: Streamlining Energy Project Review Processes"

  • An email "Re: BLM's Energy Accomplishments and Attachment of Energy Accomplishments"

  • A Briefing for Deputy Secretary Griles on "BLM Role in Implementing the NEP"


NRDC is pleased to make all of this material available to journalists. To that end, we are happy to e-mail or fax the selected documents. We can also provide an index of the above-mentioned material and follow up with any documents that interest you. The Vaughn Index, which identifies the documents withheld in full or in part, is also available upon request. We will review the next batch of task force records (arriving on July 1) and make them available to you as well.


Still missing from what has been released to NRDC are the records of Andrew Lundquist, the task force's executive director, and five other key Energy Department staff members who served the panel. U.S. District Judge Friedman granted a stay of this part of the order, pending the administration's expedited appeal to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The Department of Justice filed that appeal on June 2. Judicial Watch v. U.S. Dept. of Energy (and consolidated cases) Nos. 04-5204, 04-5205, 04-5206. Briefing is scheduled to be completed this summer with oral argument likely in the fall.

NRDC is represented by the Washington, D.C. law firm of Meyer & Glitzenstein.