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Efforts To Expand Drilling In Arctic Interior Press Ahead During Shutdown


The partial government shutdown is taking its toll on national parks. There have been reports of overflowing trash cans and vandalism. So the Interior Department announced it's taking what it calls the extraordinary step of dipping into money from park entrance fees to pay for cleanup. In the midst of the shutdown, the Trump administration is making sure some Interior employees continue work on one of its most controversial priorities - opening up more Arctic lands to oil drilling. From Alaska Public Media in Anchorage, Elizabeth Harball reports.

ELIZABETH HARBALL, BYLINE: Suzanne Little had been planning to fly hundreds of miles north from Anchorage to two Arctic communities last week to go to scheduled public meetings run by the Interior Department. But with the shutdown, she wasn't sure if the meetings were still happening. Little, who's with the Pew Charitable Trusts, is on an advisory council under Interior. So she asked the agency about the meetings. She called, emailed, texted - no response.

SUZANNE LITTLE: So I waited as long as I could. And the day before - Thursday - I canceled my ticket.

HARBALL: Hours later, Interior sent an email saying they were going forward after all.

LITTLE: It was very frustrating that there was nobody to answer phones in the office, yet the meetings were going to continue.

HARBALL: The meetings that happened despite the shutdown were about Interior's effort to open up more land to oil development in the 22-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Another meeting about those plans went ahead this week. And that's not the only work to expand oil drilling in the Arctic Interior has pressed ahead with. Emails obtained by Alaska Public Media show that on January 3, two weeks into the shutdown, an Interior employee was contacting Alaska community leaders, trying to schedule public meetings about oil lease sales in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Congress legalized drilling in the refuge about a year ago after decades of opposition from conservation groups. But following public outcry and a letter from a Democratic congressman after Alaska Public Media's report, Interior announced this week it was postponing the Arctic Refuge-related meetings. The letter came from the new chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Raul Grijalva, a fierce opponent of oil development in the refuge.

RAUL GRIJALVA: Trump is trying to have his wall and eat it too (laughter).

HARBALL: Grijalva thinks holding meetings to advance oil development during a shutdown with limited public communication raises questions about transparency. Moreover, Grijalva is demanding details on how Interior is paying for the work. Interior has said it was using money from the previous fiscal year. But he thinks the agency may be violating a federal law that limits government spending before Congress appropriates funding.

GRIJALVA: The work for gas and oil continues despite the shutdown, despite the fact that people are not being paid.

HARBALL: Interior officials declined to be interviewed for this story. But the agency defended its work in a response sent Thursday to Grijalva, saying after consulting with its solicitor's office, it determined the work was legally funded. It concluded, quote, "the planning process for both of these efforts are critical to the state of Alaska and the nation," unquote. As for Little, she was able to reschedule her flight and made the meetings. But she says she's still concerned about how public a public environmental review process can be during a government shutdown. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Harball in Anchorage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Elizabeth Harball