A group representing a federal environmental specialist blasted the Bureau of Land Management last week after the agency filed new termination papers against him.
Public Employees for Environmental Ethics calls Walter Loewen a whistleblower who is being unfairly sacked after he sought to protect nesting raptors during the approval of the Delaware-sized Converse County Oil and Gas project.
The BLM had told Cheyenne resident Loewen in February that it was firing him for poor performance.
BLM conducted a personnel hearing in March at which PEER defended Loewen. Among other things, PEER said BLM Deputy State Director for Minerals and Land Duane Spencer should recuse himself as the “deciding officer” in the personnel matter because of his “involvement in related facts that led to [Loewen’s] removal.”
The agency on June 17 wrote Loewen that it was dropping the case. The same day, BLM sent a second memo to Loewen again proposing his termination. Although the agency named a new deciding officer — a BLM official in Idaho — PEER said the second termination proposal was “based on the same issues” as the original one.
The new notice, however, transformed the initial allegations against Loewen from a poor-performance case into one of misconduct, PEER stated.
The real reason for the proposed firing is because Loewen “got crosswise with senior officials” after raising worries about the potential loss of nesting sites for ferruginous hawks, kestrels, owls and other raptors, PEER claims. Loewen raised the worries during approval of the 5,000-well oil and gas field. BLM “compounded those concerns by removing key restrictions on drilling and other work during bird breeding and nesting periods,” PEER said in a statement.
WyoFile sought a reaction from the federal agency but “BLM does not comment on personnel matters,” spokesman Brad Purdy wrote in an email.
Bernhardt waived protections
Former Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt approved the development of the 5,000-well field Dec. 23, 2020. In doing so, the BLM waived protection for 98 raptor nesting sites.
The agency said the waiver allows “relief from timing limitation stipulations … over the project’s 10-year development period.” Those stipulations were designed to protect birds’ breeding and nesting seasons. PEER said there are 1,500 non-eagle raptor nests in the project area.
With the waiver, operators may be eligible to develop in sensitive areas after they implement measures “to minimize environmental impacts,” BLM wrote WyoFile earlier this year. Each “relief” would last a year and more than 98 could be approved.
Approval of the field came despite widespread objections that development would unjustifiably fragment wildlife habitat, doom greater sage grouse breeding leks and use more than twice the amount of water predicted in BLM estimates. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department wrote that the BLM had chosen a development option “most impactful” to wildlife.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency joined the chorus of critics saying the BLM improperly used an “alternative approach” to predicting air pollution from the proposed oil and gas field near Douglas.
The developers, represented by EOG Resources Inc. spokesman Creighton Welch, have said in a statement the approved plan provides “ample protection for wildlife, habitat and other resources.” The proposed development would create an estimated 8,000 jobs and $18 billion to $28 billion in federal revenues, the BLM said.
‘Failure to follow instructions’
The BLM’s latest termination notice to Loewen said his proposed firing was for “unacceptable performance and failure to follow instructions.” Jennifer Fleuret McConchie, BLM’s Wyoming branch chief for planning, social, and cultural resources, detailed her reasoning for termination in a 24-page memo PEER provided WyoFile.
Among other things, she outlined numerous administrative actions involving employee performance, training and evaluation and Loewen’s alleged shortcomings. McConchie cited one “incident” in which Loewen declared to another staff member “You are not a [National Environmental Policy Act] expert.”
PEER’s defense of Loewen centers on several points, including that the “performance case” was based on standards set by the Trump administration that had since been invalidated.
“Earlier this year, the Biden administration scrapped the Trump policy of allowing the unintended killing of migratory birds by industry operations, precisely what would have happened in the Converse County oil project,” a PEER statement reads.
During the dust-up with his superiors, Loewen was sidelined and assigned make-work tasks, PEER said, resulting in “months of official dithering that has left Loewen in professional limbo.” But he had only been doing his job, his defenders said.
“Mr. Loewen was legally required to raise these issues,” PEER said of the environmental specialist’s worries about mating and nesting sites and seasons.
The federal employee watchdog group singled out McConchie in a scathing condemnation of her alleged actions against Loewen. She stripped him of most of his duties, PEER said. McConchie proposed his firing, according to BLM memos PEER provided to WyoFile.
“I think BLM is trying to fire the wrong official because the only misconduct here is mismanagement,” PEER Senior Council Peter Jenkins said in a statement.
“Moving forward, the BLM will need conscientious employees like Walter Loewen if it is to truly start fulfilling its legal mandate,” Jenkins stated. “BLM’s environmental analysts should not have to endure the torture of the damned just to do their jobs.”