Employees at the Bureau of Land Management field office in Vernal, Utah, were up to their ears in oil and gas drilling applications. So when an oil and gas trade group approached office manager Bill Stringer last year and offered to pay five consultants to help with the backlog, he thought it was a good idea.
Stringer's office had 380 backlogged applications for oil and gas permits last year. That number is projected to grow to nearly 600 next year, with each application taking up to 180 days to process.
The so-called "hosted workers," who started in February, are employees of SWCA Inc., an environmental consulting firm. The Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States pays the cost of their salaries directly to the consulting firm, but they work in the Vernal office alongside 90 regular BLM employees.
"This is about finding a way to accomplish work without asking taxpayers to throw money at it," says Stringer. "We're not doing anything that wouldn't get done anyway, but we're doing it more effectively."
The arrangement may be legal, but it is taking a beating from environmentalists. "This allows the industry to take the reins in approving their own permits," says Stephen Bloch, staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
Still, it's not the first time outside consultants have worked in BLM offices and the controversial practice is becoming more common as the agency's workload grows.
The first arrangement to raise eyebrows occurred in 2002, when two employees of Nevada Land and Resource Company worked in the BLM's Ely and Carson City offices. The company, which was negotiating land exchanges with the BLM, provided the workers to do archaeological and real-estate-related tasks. Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, D, objected, and the BLM put an end to the arrangement several months later.
But that didn't stop the practice. Now, both the Battle Mountain and Winnemucca field offices use industry-funded contractors. Jo Simpson, a spokeswoman for the Nevada BLM, says the workers, from third-party consulting firms, are paid by mining companies to do environmental analysis for mining operations. Five other workers from local governments and power utilities work in BLM offices in Las Vegas, Carson City and Ely, on rights-of-way applications and land inventory.
Over the past six years, the BLM has nearly quadrupled the number of oil and gas drilling permits it grants annually. It approved a record-setting 6,052 applications last year. Despite increasing its oil and gas program budget by over 50 percent since 2000, the agency can't keep up with all the requests.
Between 2001 and 2003, energy companies, led by EnCana, pooled money to fund three workers to process drilling applications in the Pinedale, Wyoming, office. In 2002, the Rawlins, Wyoming, office used funds from a group of oil and gas companies, including British Petroleum, to hire a former BLM employee as a consultant.
In the Vernal area, oil and gas operators were frustrated by a BLM office that was constantly behind in processing their permit applications, says Andrew Bremner, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States. To resolve the problem, they worked out the hosted worker program with the office: "We're just trying to help them along."
Stringer points out that the hosted workers have no final decision-making authority. And because they were hired through a third-party consulting firm, he says, they are insulated from the companies that fund them. For private consulting firms, though, completing work in a way that delivers a permit to the company paying them often makes the difference between getting a second contract or not, says Jody Freeman, a Harvard Law School professor.
"Most of the public would be shocked to find out how much of the work we think of as fundamentally governmental is being performed by private actors," says Freeman, who is writing a book about the consequences of widespread government contracting. "It's especially troubling when those private actors themselves have an interest in the outcome of the work they're performing."
After getting a temporary increase in funding from Washington in March, Stringer hired two of the contractors as official employees, moving them onto the federal payroll.
In July, the BLM announced a new plan to ask oil and gas companies to pay $4,000 for each drilling permit application, which could allow the agency to hire more permanent employees. But a late addition to the energy bill by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, will block such fees for the next 10 years.
This article originally appeared in the High Country News.