Energy & Environment

Cost analysis backing BLM move comes under scrutiny

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Experts say the cost-benefit analysis used by the Interior Department to justify its plan to relocate the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) outside of Washington is incomplete and does little to back the agency’s reasoning that the move will save taxpayers millions.

“This is a highly incomplete basis for informing a policy decision,” said Craig Thornton, an economist and president of the Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis, who reviewed the documents at the request of The Hill. 

The cost-benefit analysis created by Interior, which was obtained by The Hill, is just two pages — a brief synopsis when breaking down the financial pros and cons of a decision that could typically fill a binder. 

The figures, shared with members of Congress in August about a month after Interior announced it would move nearly all of BLM’s D.C.-based staffers to offices out West, estimates the relocation will save $123 million over 20 years through reduced salary and lease costs.

But the document lacks key details to explain the savings, giving only top-line figures without explaining how many employees they believe will move, nor how much it will cost to move each employee. 

The brevity of the document spurred the House Natural Resources Committee last week to demand Interior supply a full cost-benefit analysis for the relocation, the latest move in a months-long battle as Democrats work to halt the Trump administration’s vision for BLM.

“If I was a decisionmaker, and I got this, I’d have a whole list of questions about ‘How’d you calculate this? How’d you get that number?’ ” Thornton said of Interior’s work.

“This really isn’t a cost-benefit analysis. It’s a couple of spreadsheets,” he said, adding the documents narrowly focus on the effect on the budget.

The move, announced in July, would place about 25 BLM employees in a new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo. Roughly 150 other staffers would be spread to existing offices across the West. The relocation would leave just 61 of the agency’s 10,000 employees in Washington.

Interior has argued the move — for which it requested $13.6 million from Congress — will put BLM employees closer to the lands they manage, prioritizing stakeholders in Western areas dominated by public lands over those in the capital.

But lawmakers opposed to the move have said it’s unclear how the Trump administration plan will save money. They’ve also asked how breaking apart teams and placing them in offices far removed from D.C. will help the agency function better. 

Democrats and other critics have argued the move will leave only political appointees close to the corridors of power, sidelining career staff who help BLM balance conservation of public lands alongside energy development and ranching interests.

The Interior Department refused to answer a number of The Hill’s questions about the cost-benefit analysis underlying the move, including how it reached several of its figures.

“I can confirm a cost-benefit analysis was sent to House Natural Resources promptly after the request. The cost-benefit that was sent demonstrates the benefits of moving BLM West exceed the cost,” a spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill. 

Thornton said the documents created by Interior lack key elements of a cost-benefit analysis, and fail to think through how the move would impact the agency’s mission and functionality. 

It doesn’t consider how many people might quit as a result of the move, how the agency would be impacted by losing institutional knowledge, or spell out the benefits of having employees closer to the lands they manage. It fails to look for cheaper alternatives in D.C., like a lower-cost lease in other parts of the city.

“This assumes everyone is equally productive if they’re in Washington or if you split them up and move them elsewhere,” Thornton said. “You may be saving money but not getting the same output.”

Leaving consideration of those details aside may be part of the playbook for justifying relocations. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offered a similar analysis in June as they prepared to move staffers from its research agencies to Kansas City, Mo. But that analysis was also criticized by economists for ignoring key factors, including how many employees might flee the agency.  

Scott Swinton, an agricultural economics professor at Michigan State University who reviewed USDA’s cost-benefit analysis, estimated the move will cost taxpayers up to $182 million rather than saving them $300 million as the agency claimed.

When the USDA move was complete months later, one of its research wings ended up losing nearly 80 percent of its staff and had issues putting out required reports. 

Swinton said Interior’s analysis likewise fails to consider aspects that could dwindle anticipated savings. 

“They share the same traits that they ignore the possibility of not retaining 100 percent of people and both ignore the possibility of getting some of the space savings while remaining in Washington, D.C., in a place you could be pretty certain of retaining staff,” he said.

The analysis also doesn’t estimate the potential for increased travel costs as a result of flying staffers back to Washington for meetings, along with the associated per diem and hotel costs.

Steve Ellis, who retired from the highest-level career post within BLM in 2016, said Interior should have some basis to make that calculation. A large number of BLM employees were moved west during the George H.W. Bush administration, he said, leading the agency to quickly blow through its travel budget.

But what’s hard to quantify, he said, is what agency leaders will miss by being unable to pop over for meetings on Capitol Hill and with other Interior agencies or nonprofits.

“I could not have built good relations if I was in Grand Junction on a conference call or an occasional fly-in from D.C. How do you put a dollar figure on that?” he asked.

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