Amid ongoing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, federal agencies overseeing energy production have committed to maintaining their operations.
Officials from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Department of the Interior, and the Environmental Protection Agency have outlined plans to facilitate telework, temporarily suspend entrance fees for national parks and federally managed properties, and ensure the continuation of essential operations, including oil and gas lease sales.
Despite calls from various environmental groups to postpone oil and gas lease sales in New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming, the BLM has asserted that it will proceed with these sales as scheduled, spanning this week and the next.
Some environmental organizations argue for a temporary hold on these sales due to concerns about both the COVID-19 crisis and the economic challenges posed by lower oil prices and market instability.
Chris Tollefson, the Public Affairs Chief of the BLM, confirmed in an email that the agency intends to fulfill its legally mandated quarterly lease sales while adhering to guidelines aimed at safeguarding the health of employees and the public during these challenging times.
“Because we have moved to an online auction with a third-party contractor, there are no public health risks associated with carrying out this important mandate,” Tollefson added. “While the majority of the BLM staff is teleworking, any staff associated with the sale will be practicing social distancing, as well as other mitigation measures recommended by the CDC.”
EnergyNet is the entity responsible for conducting the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sales each quarter, with an upcoming sale featuring nearly 200,000 acres.
In a lease sale held by the BLM New Mexico State Office in February, bids totaling $20,389,528.00 were received for 66 parcels covering 16,784.64 acres.
As reported by Western Wire, the BLM transitioned its quarterly lease sales to an online platform in 2017. This move aimed to enhance participation in the sales while addressing security concerns.
Previous lease sales conducted in person had encountered increased pressure from protesters and disruptions, prompting the shift to an online format.
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In response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, numerous Keep It in the Ground groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Earthworks, have penned a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.
The letter requests the suspension of major policy changes, regulatory alterations, oil and gas lease sales, and public comment periods during the emergency period.
Meanwhile, the Interior Department has taken steps such as opening national wildlife refuges and other Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sites without admission fees, aligning with the earlier suspension of fees at National Park Service properties.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt expressed that this decision aims to make it more accessible for the public to enjoy outdoor spaces during this challenging time.
The move also aligns with social distancing guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, encouraging people to engage in outdoor activities while maintaining appropriate physical distance.
“At a majority of park locations where it is currently possible to adhere to public health guidance, outdoor spaces remain open to the public, while many facilities will be closed,” NPS said.
Following an earthquake in the Salt Lake City area, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office in Utah has decided to remain closed. This marks the only reported closure thus far. In response to the earthquake and amid the ongoing COVID-19 concerns, other agencies have transitioned much of their work online, with employees being encouraged to telework.
Earlier in the week, Rich Mylott, the spokesman for EPA Region 8, communicated that all EPA Region 8 offices are currently open. However, he noted that a majority of employees are opting for telework, following guidance issued by the agency a few days prior.
This approach aligns with efforts across various organizations to ensure employee safety and comply with health guidelines during these challenging times.
“We continue to perform our functions and responsibilities, although travel has been limited to mission-critical travel only,” Mylott added.
An EPA Region 8 employee in Montana has been diagnosed “presumed positive,” according to a staff email from regional administrator Greg Sopkin. The email was first reported by The Hill and confirmed independently by E&E News.
An EPA Region 8 employee based in Montana has received a diagnosis of being “presumed positive” for COVID-19, as stated in a staff email from regional administrator Greg Sopkin. The initial report of this email came from The Hill and has been independently confirmed by E&E News.
This development underscores the challenges faced by various organizations, including government agencies, as they navigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on their operations and personnel.
“The individual has had minimal contact outside of their immediate workspace. The common areas the individual may have contacted . . . are being disinfected over the weekend in accordance with CDC guidelines,” Sopkin added. Telework for employees in the Helena, Montana office extended through April 3, but the regional office would remain open at this time. Other offices were not affected, according to the email.
Lisa Friedman, a New York Times reporter, shared information on Twitter regarding the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to her tweet, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler conveyed a message to EPA staff through a video, stating that the expectation is for most EPA team members across the country to work from home unless there is a compelling mission-critical reason for them to be in the office.
This aligns with the broader trend of organizations implementing telework and remote work policies to ensure the safety of employees during the ongoing health crisis.
“My highest priority is protecting your health and welfare. We have important work to do for the American public and they are counting on us to get it done,” Wheeler added.
The Department of Energy has confirmed one employee with COVID-19.