A federal judge has blocked the Department of Interior from implementing recommendations by an advisory committee that was reestablished under former Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Judge Donald Molloy of the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana agreed this week with a grassroots organization focused on the environment and sustainability, finding that Interior “improperly established” the Royalty Policy Committee (RPC).
Zinke, who resigned last year in the face of congressional investigations, had reestablished the committee to provide the federal agency with advice on issues related to leasing energy and mineral resources on federal and Native American lands. The committee was chartered in 1995 with an initial mandate to review and comment on revenue management and other mineral-related policies. It was reestablished by Zinke in 2017 with a broader mandate, including whether regulatory reform was needed for revenue collection.
In a lawsuit filed last year by the Western Organization of Resource Councils, the group argued that “rather than pursue its task with the full and transparent participation” of the public, “the committee operates in secret and works to advance the goals of only one interest: the extractive industries that profit from the development of public gas, oil and coal.”
Interior had violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which outlines requirements for how advisory committees should be formed and operated for executive branch officers and agencies Molloy said. While the RPC had members with varying interests, he said it failed to explain why other groups were not included.
Interior, which is reviewing the ruling, is now prohibited from relying on or using RPC’s recommendations. Among them was a proposal to slash royalty rates for offshore oil and gas production from waters 200 meters or deeper to 12.5% from 18.75%. Zinke had rejected that idea.
While Malloy’s ruling could be viewed as moot given that the RPC’s charter expired earlier this year, some of its recommendations were similar to those of other stakeholders, including the public, and are not prohibited as a result.