Interior Secretary David Bernhardt touts environmental deregulation at appearance in Steamboat Springs |

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt touts environmental deregulation at appearance in Steamboat Springs

Derek Maiolo Steamboat Springs Pilot & Today

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In his opening address Friday to the Steamboat Institute’s 2019 Freedom Conference at The Steamboat Grand, U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt praised his department’s initiatives since he took office in April.

Chief among those initiatives were deregulatory efforts to boost revenue from oil and gas operations and make it easier for companies to get federal leases on public lands, such as the announcement last week to weaken application of the Endangered Species Act.

In the moments before his speech, one could sense a tension in the largest ballroom of the hotel. After two people broke out in protest at last summer’s Freedom Conference during a speech by the previous Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, organizers appeared on-edge about the potential of a similar outburst during Bernhardt’s address.

“Hecklers will be promptly escorted from the premises without a refund by a uniformed law enforcement officer or Steamboat Grand security personnel,” Steamboat Institute’s Chairman and CEO Jennifer Shubert-Akin warned the crowd before Bernhardt took the stage. “We hope we don’t have to do that.”

While no one disrupted Bernhardt during his address, a handful of protestors stood outside the hotel, holding up signs to passing cars.

Bernhardt began his speech by recounting his upbringing just a few hours away in his hometown of Rifle. As he said, growing up surrounded by federal land instilled in him the importance of protecting the beauty of natural landscapes and resources.

“But the reality is that the culture, the history and the economies of rural communities along the Western Slope and throughout the West depend on both the development and use of those natural resources,” he said.

To that end, Bernhardt said his department has delivered over $3.7 billion in what he called “regulatory relief” to the American people since President Donald Trump took office.

Bernhardt discussed some of the ways he has contributed to deregulation, such as streamlining the National Environmental Policy Act to make it easier for companies to get leases on federal land for operations like oil and gas drilling. 

Conservationists have argued the expedited process poses threats to public lands and the fish and wildlife that live on them, shortcutting regulations that have been in place for 50 years.

He argued that such deregulation has boosted revenue from federal lands since Trump took office, hitting a record revenue of $1.1 billion last year.

“We have the highest number of oil and gas production on federal leases since 2008,” he said. “But it is also worth noting we have leased the least amount of acreage during that time.”

Bernhardt was referring to statistics the Bureau of Land Management released in May, showing that in fiscal year 2018, the nation produced a total of 214.14 million barrels of oil on federal land “with the smallest footprint of acreage under lease” since the agency began collecting comparable data in 1985.

Bernhardt pointed to advances in technology and innovation, in addition to deregulation, as the primary factors of the record-setting year. 

While the overall acreage of leased land decreased in recent years, the BLM recently has expanded leases on public lands and continues to allow more companies to gain permits.

According to those statistics from the BLM, the agency leased about 1.3 million acres in new leases during fiscal year 2018, compared with about 570,000 acres during fiscal year 2016. The number of new leases rose to 1,333 in 2018, compared with 520 leases issued in 2016.

The leasing of public lands to oil and gas companies is among the reasons longtime Steamboat Springs resident Stuart Lynn and other protestors spoke out against Bernhardt outside the hotel.

“The regular guys get poorer and the richer guys get richer at the exploitation of the Earth and our natural resources,” Lynn said. 

A “Stand for Our Land” protest also called for climate action Friday on the Routt County Courthouse lawn in downtown Steamboat. A similar protest last year, timed with Zinke’s visit to the area, drew a crowd of 1,400.

Though only about 400 people gathered this year, protesters came out in response to Bernhardt’s appearance and encouraged people to vote, get involved and support public lands. 

“I wanted to come out and be a presence and a voice to show support and say ‘This is important,’” said Hayden resident Megan Walker, who participated in the rally.