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Why Biden's new public lands chief has to 'walk a line' on climate policy

Bureau of Land Management land in Harney County, Ore.
Kirk Siegler/NPR
Bureau of Land Management land in Harney County, Ore.

There's a scene in the HBO series White Lotus where the Bureau of Land Management, long seen as a back-burner federal agency, hits pop culture.

In the show set at an exclusive Hawaiian resort, a character played by comedian and actress Jennifer Coolidge mistakes a middle aged white man she's having a fling with as a Black Lives Matter activist, after he'd told her that he worked for the BLM.

"I wanna know how did you get involved with the BLM? I just think that's so interesting," Coolidge says. An awkward pause follows before the man, played by Jon Gries, laughs after catching on. He's actually an ex-cop who now works for the BLM in rural Colorado.

"That's the Bureau of Land Management," he says. " I have like 300 rangers across ten states that report to me."

For the "other" BLM's new director, Tracy Stone-Manning, who laughs loudly when asked if she'd seen the series and that scene, the fictional reference illustrates how the agency is becoming a lot better known beyond just its traditional footprint of the American West. Stone-Manning, who survived a bitter nomination battle in the US Senate and was confirmed on a party line vote in September, knows that spotlight is about to get more intense.

The energy development she's set to regulate puts her on the front lines of the Biden administration's climate agenda.

Montana environmental leader Tracy Stone-Manning is the Bureau of Land Management's first permanent director since the Obama administration.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
Kirk Siegler/NPR
Montana environmental leader Tracy Stone-Manning is the Bureau of Land Management's first permanent director since the Obama administration.

"The energy side of that is transitioning to renewables," Stone-Manning says. "Our agency is right in the middle of helping to drive that transition."

The BLM hasn't had a permanent, Senate-confirmed director in 5 years. And Stone-Manning's tenure begins as the Biden administration is under intense pressure to end all fossil fuel development on federal land in the West. Environmentalists see that as a key component to fighting the climate crisis. But the oil and gas industry still expects the US government to afford it new drilling opportunities.

It's up to Stone-Manning to strike that tricky and some say contradictory balance.

'Charging ahead' with clean energy

The Department of Interior's Stuart Lee Udall building is a cavernous complex in Washington D.C. just a short walk from the National Mall in one direction and the White House in another.

The BLM occupies a large wing on the fifth floor. Stone-Manning and senior staffers have only recently moved in, or back in, in some cases.

President Trump relocated the bureau's headquarters to Grand Junction - where Jennifer Coolidge's fictional flame is based on the HBO show - in 2019. Then, last August, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland - who oversees the BLM - announced the agency was moving back to Washington. The bureau will still keep a western headquarters in Grand Junction - 97% of its staff still lives and works in the West. But Interior officials argued they needed a voice inside the beltway.

That Colorado office is situated near the state's massive oil and gas fields, a location that had been seen as symbolic under the agency's previous acting director William Perry Pendley. Back in Washington meanwhile, Tracy Stone-Manning has other plans.

"We're charging ahead with a clean energy future because we have to, it's our responsibility to the future," she says. "I think the way that you walk that line is to be transparent and clear about what you're doing."

With climate change accelerating, the federal government is trying to fast track 25 new gigawatts of renewable energy development on US public lands by 2025.
That will mean a lot of new environmental impact studies for potential permitting, but also a big change for some local economies that are based on fossil fuel extraction.

"That requires really a thoughtful approach that does not leave communities behind, that does not leave states behind, but that also honors and does the right thing for future generations," Stone-Manning says.

The Bureau of Land Management manages close to 250 million acres of federal land, including much of Steens Mountain in eastern Oregon.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
Kirk Siegler/NPR
The Bureau of Land Management manages close to 250 million acres of federal land, including much of Steens Mountain in eastern Oregon.

Environmentalists accuse Biden of a double standard

That transition is already rocky.

When the Biden administration tried to put a freeze on all new oil and gas leases on public land, a federal judge struck it down. The administration is appealing. But this February, the BLM is scheduled to open up some 300,000 acres of public land to new oil and gas drilling.

"I see the administration backpedaling on all its climate promises and climate action with this lease sale in particular," says Natasha Leger, executive director of the Paonia, Colo. based Citizens for a Healthy Community.

Groups like hers are pressuring the administration to cancel the upcoming lease sale, arguing it will violate federal land management and environmental laws meant to protect wildlife and the climate. The court ordered the sale to resume, citing the BLM's obligations under the 1920 Mineral Leasing Act.

Leger wants to see all new drilling on federal land banned as a response to the climate crisis, which she says is accelerating drought and shrinking rivers that rural economies depend on in the Colorado basin. The US government has estimated that fossil fuel development from federal public lands accounts for close to a quarter of all the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

"By allowing these leases to move forward the administration is locking in oil and gas development for the next ten to thirty years," Leger says.

What happens next is an 'open question'

But the oil and gas industry has warned that stopping all new - and discouraging existing - development could cost local economies in the West tens of billions of dollars. Republicans from energy-rich states further sought to block Biden lands agency nominees with ties to environmental groups who they argued would be unfriendly to traditional energy industries.

For weeks last summer, Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso led the opposition against Stone-Manning's appointment to BLM due to her ties to the radical Earth First movement while a graduate student in Montana in the 1980s.

"Tracy Stone-Manning is a dangerous choice to be put in charge of America's public lands and each and every Senator who votes to confirm her will be held personally responsible," Barrasso said earlier this year on the Senate floor.

For her part, Stone-Manning has said that she is charged with implementing policies set forth by the new administration and she's committed to working with western governors and leaders to transform and modernize her agency.

The BLM manages 28 large national monuments, mostly in the West, including the Carrizo Plain in central California.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
Kirk Siegler/NPR
The BLM manages 28 large national monuments, mostly in the West, including the Carrizo Plain in central California.

Before assuming the director role, she worked as the state of Montana's top environmental regulator, and later as chief of staff to Montana's former Democratic Governor Steve Bullock. She also ran an environmental group that brokered a deal between British Petroleum and local communities to remove a dam where toxic mining sediment had built up threatening local water supplies.

"I think my record speaks for itself that I work across the aisle and always have. And as I go about the West and I'm meeting and talking with people, I think people saw that [confirmation] process for what it was, political and behind us," Stone-Manning says.

The Bureau of Land Management is required by law to manage US public lands for multiple uses, ranging from recreation to cattle grazing to energy development.

"Business people are very good at what they do and they're going to continue to make energy," Stone-Manning says. "What that energy looks like is an open question."

In a country this polarized, Stone-Manning knows that her previous record of brokering bi-partisan lands deals will be put to the test as one of the biggest challenges of her career looms.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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