A watchdog group challenged the proposed firing of a federal environmental analyst Tuesday after he criticized plans to allow the Converse County Oil and Gas Project to degrade raptor nesting sites.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national group that supports whistleblowers and others, said it was defending Bureau of Land Management employee Walter Loewen after he stood up for wildlife as tasked in 2019. BLM sidelined the six-year employee to “make-work” jobs and put him on notice Feb. 23 that he would be fired, PEER contends.
The conflict arose from Loewen’s persistence in raising concerns about the Delaware-sized development’s effects on ferruginous hawks, kestrels, owls, and other raptors, PEER said. An attorney for the group, Peter Jenkins, was set Tuesday to attend a closed-door hearing on the effort to remove Loewen, he said.
A BLM spokeswoman would not confirm the hearing, saying in an email the agency does not comment on personnel actions. The agency approved the development Dec. 23.
Loewen told supervisors about biologists’ worries about the development’s effects, Peer stated in a 16-page letter to the BLM (see below). “After making those internal disclosures about ferruginous hawk mortality, which many in the [Supervisor’s Office] decisionmaking [sic] chain refused to acknowledge, Mr. Loewen was, with no appropriate justification, removed from his [National Environmental Policy Act] project duties altogether by Jennifer Fleuret (the Proposing Official) in retaliation for his disclosures,” PEER’s letter reads.
Loewen’s proposed removal is based on an “unfair appraisal process created by the Trump Administration,” the letter claims. Further, President Joe Biden had revoked that Trump process before BLM even proposed Loewen be fired, PEER contends.
The proposed firing resulted from “retaliation and bias” on the part of Loewen’s supervisor and was based on “improper performance management,” among other things, the letter states. PEER also asks that Duane Spencer, associate state director, recuse himself as the “deciding official” in the case because of his previous involvement.
“The real reason Walter Loewen was targeted for removal is because he actually tried to do his job,” PEER senior counsel Jenkins said in a statement. “Inside Trump’s BLM, speaking truth to power was not tolerated.
“This case illustrates that the task of conducting environmental reviews in the final days of the Trump administration certainly qualified as a high-risk occupation.”
Former Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt approved the development of the 5,000-well oil and gas field despite objections it will fragment wildlife habitat, doom greater-sage-grouse breeding leks and use more than twice the amount of water predicted. As part of the approval for development across 2.4% of Wyoming’s landscape near Douglas, the BLM waived protection for 98 raptor nesting sites for a year, with more waivers a possibility.
There are 1,500 non-eagle raptor nests in the project area where development is supposed to be held at bay when birds mate and fledge their chicks, PEER stated. BLM received widespread criticism for its development proposal. One comment from Wyoming Game and Fish Department said that the BLM had chosen a development option “most impactful” to wildlife.
The EPA also weighed in saying the BLM used an “alternative approach” to analyzing pollution effects instead of methods the EPA had standardized. Despite the input, the BLM did not change its plan.
Approval failed to honor treaty rights, Native American tribes said, as well as requirements to consult with them. The National Audubon Society and nine other conservation groups also criticized the plan.
When it rolled out its approval, BLM quoted a variety of state and federal officials who lauded the proposed development and the projected 8,000 jobs and $18 billion to $28 billion in federal revenues.
Five companies initially sought approval of the field in 2014. Anadarko Petroleum Company, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, EOG Resources, Inc., Devon Energy and SM Energy applied for the development. Only one of those companies — EOG — survived the intervening turmoil in the fossil fuel marketplace in its previous form.
The developers, represented by EOG spokesman Creighton Welch, said in an earlier statement the approved plan provides “ample protection for wildlife, habitat and other resources.”
Loewen’s attorney Jenkins wrote that a decision on the firing is not expected for weeks.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.