Overnight Energy: BLM exodus | Agency loses half of DC staff slated for relocation | Lawmakers search for deal on measure stalling energy bill

Overnight Energy: BLM exodus | Agency loses half of DC staff slated for relocation | Lawmakers search for deal on measure stalling energy bill
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THE NUMBERS ARE IN: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has lost more than half of its Washington-based employees who were slated to move out West as the agency pushes ahead with a controversial plan to relocate staff.

New internal numbers from the Interior Department obtained by The Hill show 69 employees have left the agency rather than accept the new assignment. Another 18 left after the plans were announced but before they could be reassigned.

Those 87 employees outnumber the 80 who have agreed to the move.

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The figures are at odds with the ones referenced in December by Acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley, who said in an email that roughly two-thirds of staffers had agreed to move.

"This is a huge brain drain," said Steve Ellis, who retired from BLM's top career-level post in 2018. "There is a lot of really solid expertise walking out the door."

The Interior Department, which oversees BLM, did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The BLM move would uproot nearly all of the agency's dwindling Washington staff out West, leaving just 61 of 10,000 employees in the nation's capital.

Under the relocation plan, roughly 25 employees would work at BLM's new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., while another 150 or so would be placed in the agency's existing offices out West.

The new internal figures show the agency is experiencing an exodus similar to the ones at two U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies. One of the two agencies, the Economic Research Service, lost nearly 80 percent of its staff last year and had to cancel several projects as a result.

BLM first announced its Western relocation plans in July 2019, sparking objections from Democratic lawmakers and condemnation from agency retirees who argued that career staffers would flee the agency and leave BLM with a dearth of experience on top of its numerous vacancies.

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In a meeting with Senate appropriators Wednesday, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told lawmakers he was confident the agency would find quality candidates to replace the departing staffers, including those needed to fill top positions at the new headquarters.

"The caliber of people and number of people applying for these positions is through the roof and phenomenal," he said.

But Ellis said the relocation "removes BLM from the sphere of direct influence in the nation's capital and critically weakens the agency's ability for career leadership and their staff to collaborate across disciplines and work closely with other key agencies."

"The administration is solving a problem that isn't there while creating new ones. It will weaken the agency by marginalizing leadership in a relatively small western community," he added.

BLM is hoping to complete the move by the summer. BLM employees have told The Hill that some staffers have accepted reassignment but plan to keep looking until they have to report to their new location.

Previous reporting from The Hill found the move would split apart a key team that reviews the environmental impacts of major land decisions, spreading them across seven states.

The move is one potential topic for a subpoena from the House Natural Resources Committee, which gave its chair subpoena power last month.

"The Trump administration is destroying the Bureau of Land Management by mistreating its staff and politicizing its mission and then lying to Congress and the public about the damage it's causing," Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva said in a statement Thursday to The Hill.

Read more on the controversy here.

 

HAPPY THURSDAY! Welcome to Overnight Energy, The Hill's roundup of the latest energy and environment news. Please send tips and comments to Rebecca Beitsch at rbeitsch@thehill.com. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccabeitsch. Reach Rachel Frazin at rfrazin@thehill.com or follow her on Twitter: @RachelFrazin. 

 

HOLD UP, WHAT'S THE HOLD UP? Lawmakers are working on a compromise to an amendment that risks stalling an otherwise popular energy package.

The American Energy Innovation Act would spur research and development into a number of types of energy, the first major package on the topic in over a decade.

But an amendment to phase down the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used in refrigerators and air conditioners is holding up a broader vote.

Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoEnergy innovation bill can deliver jobs and climate progress Trump's Teflon problem: Nothing sticks, including the 'wins' Senate to push funding bill vote up against shutdown deadline MORE (R-Wyo.) is fighting for language that would block states from setting their own stricter standards on the substance. 

The White House has also expressed opposition to the amendment, echoing Barrasso's position. 

Barrasso told The Hill Thursday he is working with amendment sponsors Sens. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) and Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperEnergy innovation bill can deliver jobs and climate progress The conservative case for phasing out hydrofluorocarbons Democrat asks for probe of EPA's use of politically appointed lawyers MORE (D-Del.) to tweak the amendment, arguing such legislation should have passed through the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee that he chairs.

"This is trying to airdrop something into the energy bill that's been referred to another committee. The idea of having committees is to vet ideas," Barrasso said. "They chose to bypass the committee process and ignore some of the suggestions or have not yet accepted some of the suggestions that I think would help improve it."

When asked for comment by The Hill, Kennedy said only, "We're working on it."

Kennedy and Carper gave passionate floor speeches on Wednesday, pleading with lawmakers for movement on their amendment.

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"It doesn't mean to have to vote for it," Kennedy said. "You can vote against it. But please let the entire body have a vote. Because that is what democracy is supposed to be about."

Carper also argued the preemption issue should not stall a vote.

"Let's go ahead and get the bill out, get it through the process, through the House, and then later on if we need to revisit the issue of preemption, and we can do that," Carper told reporters Tuesday, arguing the legislation is widely backed by both industry and environmentalists.

Lawmakers have proposed adding numerous amendments to the American Energy Innovation Act, which is seen as the best chance this year for passing legislation to expand the use of cleaner forms of energy.

For example: One proposal would seek to incorporate provisions from Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanMcConnell locks down key GOP votes in Supreme Court fight Romney undecided on authorizing subpoenas for GOP Obama-era probes Congress needs to prioritize government digital service delivery MORE (R-Ohio) and Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenSenate Democrats introduce bill to sanction Russians over Taliban bounties Trump-backed candidate wins NH GOP Senate primary to take on Shaheen Democratic senator urges Trump to respond to Russian aggression MORE (D-N.H.) to strengthen building codes to make new homes more energy efficient.

Another, proposed by Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns On The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline Democratic senators ask inspector general to investigate IRS use of location tracking service MORE (D-Ore.), would aim to expand tax incentives for electric vehicles and renewable energy.

Read more about the negotiations here.

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OUTSIDE (AND INSIDE) THE BELTWAY:

G.M. Lays Out Ambitions for Electric-Vehicle Lineup to Rival Tesla, The New York Times reports

As a town invests in lobbyists, critics fear it could fast-track Grand Canyon development, The Arizona Republic reports

Playing politics with science spawns new threat to endangered whales, CQ Roll Call reports