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Industry-Paid Consultants “Volunteering” at Bureau of Land Management

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Five consultants, paid by the oil and gas industry, have been “volunteering” at a Bureau of Land Management office in Utah, with the goal of helping the office deal with a glut of drilling requests in the region.

Can you say “conflict of interest”?

The bureau, part of the U.S. Department of Interior, defended the use of the industry-paid consultants: “As long as the information coming in is without prejudice, we’ll take it,” the bureau’s Bill Stringer, a field manager in the office, told the Salt Lake Tribune for a July 9 story.

But therein lies the conundrum: Can people with an obvious bias provide information “without prejudice.” Even Stringer admitted that his office doesn’t know if the projects the consultants work on affect companies paying their salaries.

It’s reminiscent of a statement President Bush made earlier this year on the use of propaganda: “(T)hese pieces are OK so long as they’re based upon facts, not advocacy,” suggesting that propaganda created by the government was not “advocacy” — as if the administration would pay a journalist or create a video news release to oppose the administration.

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Can industry-paid consultants be objective?

Steve Bloch, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, told the Tribune that “it’s akin to the foxes guarding the henhouse. These are public lands and there clearly is a quid pro quo expected here, that there is going to be faster permitting, faster approval rates, and instead they really should be taking their time to make sure they’re doing it right.”

Already, there has been one example where use of the industry-paid consultants has brought questioned results. Four consultants did work on a proposal to drill nine wells in a wilderness area known as the Rock House project. Bloch said the industry-paid consultants’ assessment had serious shortcomings. Without blaming the consultants, Stringer agreed there were problems with the assessment, and said the bureau is planning to re-do the work and re-release it for public comment.

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How did this arrangement come about?

Knowing that the office had a backlog of about 400 permits to drill for oil and gas in the Uinta Basin, and a lack of staff to process that backlog quickly, a handful of oil and gas companies pooled their resources via the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States. The trade group then paid SWCA Environmental Consulting to find people to “volunteer.” The “volunteers” began work in February as three-month hires, and have since been extended on a month-to-month basis.

Information about the hirings was obtained by the Tribune via a Freedom of Information Act request.

In a perfect world, Stringer told the Tribune, the arrangement wouldn’t be necessary. “But we don’t have a perfect world, so what I’m saying is I’ll do the best I can with what you give me.”

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This article first appeared on Journalists Against Bush’s B.S. (JABBS)

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About David R. Mark