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Environmental Watchdog Accuses Interior Of Kowtowing To Big Oil, And It All Comes Down To A Beetle

Photo of beetle. / mb-fotos

The U.S. Interior Department may have complied with requests from an oil industry trade association to remove some environmental species act protections for a beetle, according to agency records. 

The emails, from 2017, were obtained through a public record request by the Western Values Project, an environmental watchdog. 

In August 2017, the International Petroleum Association of America sent the then-head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Greg Sheehan, a letter and email requesting his help with efforts to remove federal protections for the American burying beetle. 

The species, which inhabits parts of New England and the Great Plains, has been the ire of oil producers for years. They argue that the beetles’ population has recovered and that endangered species act protections have hampered development in oil-rich areas of Oklahoma. 

In May 2019, the agency appeared to agree with oil producers and proposed downgradingprotections for the beetle from endangered to threatened. It also created exemptions that would allow industry to operate in places where populations are healthy and growing.

“This shows us that Westerners should be very concerned about the close level of coordination between Interior and special interests,” said Chris Saeger, executive director of Western Values Project. “There is little evidence in these emails that Interior is balancing their perspectives except for the ones that they are receiving from industry groups.” 

Under the Trump administration, the Interior Department has been accused by groups such as Western Values Project of kowtowing to oil, gas and coal industries while ignoring environmental protection groups. 

But an Interior spokeswoman said in a statement that the department was following the best available science when it downgraded the beetle.

“This is another sad attempt by the Western Values Project to generate content based on emails we provided to them in one of their many FOIA requests,” spokeswoman Molly Block said. “They would rather try to spread misinformation for their own benefit than to accept the science and conservation efforts that has led to the reduction of threats to the beetle.”

When the beetle was first listed in 1989 it was only known in two locations — Oklahoma and Rhode Island. There are now confirmed populations in nine states. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Nate Hegyi is the Utah reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at KUER. He covers federal land management agencies, indigenous issues, and the environment. Before arriving in Salt Lake City, Nate worked at Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio, and was an intern with NPR's Morning Edition. He received a master's in journalism from the University of Montana.
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