What BLM’s new leader means for oil and gas

By Heather Richards | 02/15/2022 06:55 AM EST

Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning

Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning faces the challenge of her career carrying out Biden's controversial energy policies on public lands. Francis Chung/E&E News

Tracy Stone-Manning faces the unenviable job of implementing an energy agenda on public lands that simultaneously dissatisfies climate activists and enrages oil allies.

Republicans have slammed her as an anti-oil political extremist, but former colleagues say the new director of the Bureau of Land Management is uniquely qualified to carry out the Biden administration’s vision to revamp the federal oil and gas program.

A longtime conservationist and state government leader from Montana, Stone-Manning is described by these supporters as steeped in public land issues and — perhaps most importantly — experienced in working across political divides.

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“Tracy’s kind of superpower is how collaborative she is, like the fact that she can go into, you know, a union hall, or a ranchers association, or to a coal mine and be as comfortable as she is in a room with a bunch of NGOs,” said Collin O’Mara, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), who worked with Stone-Manning during the Trump years.

Few can argue that Stone-Manning is now in position to exert significant influence on energy policy at the national level, affecting every sector with an interest in public lands. Along with implementing reforms for federal drilling, Stone-Manning in the coming years is expected to play a role in modernizing the national coal program and roll out a huge effort to grow solar energy on public lands.

She’s worked on thorny issues before. As a community activist, Stone-Manning helped build a coalition to tear down a dam that was trapping toxic mine sediment in a Montana reservoir. While serving as former Gov. Steve Bullock’s (D) chief of staff, she supported a compromise plan during the Obama administration for balancing energy development with protections for sage grouse — the iconic Western bird whose habitat often overlaps with oil fields. And she helped lead the public land division of the National Wildlife Federation during the Trump administration’s so-called energy dominance era.

But much of that experience receded to the background last year during Stone-Manning’s confirmation hearings to lead BLM, which many observers deemed aggressive even by the hyperpartisan standards of today’s politics.

Chair Joe Manchin (D- W.VA) called it one of the most emotional confirmations in his years on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“It was pretty ruthless, unprofessional, uncalled for,” said Karen Knudsen, a Montana rancher who worked with Stone-Manning in her early career and watched some of the hearings from afar with surprise.

Much of the heat rose over Stone-Manning’s graduate school-era involvement in a tree-spiking incident in 1989 on Forest Service lands, prompting a former BLM leader to question if she was the right person to lead a similar public lands agency. Sen. John Barrasso (R- Wyo.), the ranking member of the committee, called Stone-Manning an “eco-terrorist” (Greenwire, July 22, 2021).

Stone-Manning hadn’t participated in the tree spiking, but she mailed a letter about it to federal authorities — and eventually testified against those involved as part of a partial immunity deal.

That wasn’t the only conflict that surfaced. Republican senators also lambasted her perceived opposition to fossil fuel production on public lands, a central responsibility of BLM.

“She opposes an American energy dominance agenda. She supports prohibiting oil and gas development on federal land and waters,” Barrasso said during the hearings.

Western oil advocates say the heat isn’t personal. They recognize Stone-Manning worked for centrist Democratic politicians in Montana who supported to some degree the fossil fuel development that partially fuels their state coffers. And when Stone-Manning was a senior adviser for conservation policy NWF during the Trump years, her tone was far more measured than advocates at some other national conservation groups, they say.

But Stone-Manning represents a “political reality,” said Alan Olson, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, who knew Stone-Manning during her years in state politics and regulation.

“When Biden ran for president, he ran on a platform that oil and gas is bad and we’re gonna do what we can to shut it down,” he said. “I’m not saying that Tracy is relishing that, but she’s got a job to do. And she will do the job that her bosses tell her to do.”

The Biden administration in practice hasn’t moved to shut down oil and gas on public lands. But the Interior Department has promised to overhaul public lands energy development, increasing the cost of drilling and restricting where companies can explore. It published a greenhouse gas emissions report last year that officials said would guide future drilling decisions. BLM officials are also gearing up to pen new methane emission regulations, alongside broader rewrites of the oil and gas leasing program’s bonding, royalty and fee requirements.

That regulatory pressure on the federal oil program — which will be led by BLM — is moving forward instead of an aggressive rollback of federal drilling that greens had hoped for, and that Biden himself had promised on the campaign trail. But oil allies are still raising alarms about what they see as a chipping away of leasing and drilling on public lands.

For her part, Stone-Manning for years has talked about trying to bridge the bitter divides on public land.

In an interview with Montana Living more than a decade ago, she said addressing the conflicts between energy and conservation were at the heart of her work. “How do we transport environmentalism beyond the us vs. them, jobs vs. the environment debates?” she asked.

Taking down the Milltown Dam

Stone-Manning isn’t originally from Montana. She moved West from the Washington region to attend graduate school at the University of Montana in the late 1980s. There, she fell in love with the landscape, married the environmental writer Richard Manning and started a career in conservation work.

From early on, the state became a proving ground, and Stone-Manning was drawn into long-standing arguments over the future of public land, conservation and industry.

To understand Stone-Manning, old friends point to one of her first big challenges as a conservationist: the Milltown Dam.

The dam had stood at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers in Montana for 95 years, when Stone-Manning decided it needed to come down.

It was 1999. She was the new director of the Clark Fork Coalition.

Pollution around the dam and reservoir had long been a severe problem, holding a concentrated mix of arsenic and other contaminants from historic upriver copper mining driven down to the dam site by flooding. The area was part of one of the largest and most complicated Superfund sites in the country. But, as recalled by one of the coalition staff members at the time, bringing down the dam sounded bold, and a little “insane.”

“It was just seemingly such a radical thing to be advocating for,” Knudsen said in an interview. The Montana rancher and conservationist is the current director of the Clark Fork Coalition and worked there when Stone-Manning was on its board and later served seven years as director.

The group launched the fight to pull down the dam, and eventually would be successful. But that wasn’t the only fight over cleaning up the river where Stone-Manning revealed a bold style — another battle lay in EPA’s cleanup efforts.

EPA had put together a massive cleanup strategy for the Milltown Dam Reservoir Superfund site, after years of river advocates pushing for a federal strategy. But while Stone-Manning and others were celebrating, ranchers balked.

“Ranchers don’t want to see government bulldozers and backhoes digging up their riparian pastures,” said Knudsen, who was a longtime rancher in the area. “So that’s when [Stone-Manning] hatched the idea — and we got behind it — to buy a ranch.”

The coalition purchased a working cattle operation in the middle of the Superfund site. They designed the ranch to be a test case for area ranchers to witness the EPA strategies in action, workshop them where possible, and ease fears that EPA would strong-arm local ranchers or damage private property.

Knudsen described Stone-Manning as someone willing to think big but also able to pull off big ideas.

“She sticks to the facts, maintains an empathetic listening mode and, you know, created space for productive dialogue,” she said.

Career in politics

By the time the Milltown Dam finally came down in 2008, Stone-Manning was a year into her first job in politics. She would spend most of the Obama administration in Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-Mont.) office as a regional director and then state staff director, navigating the evolving politics of the Obama administration’s approach to public lands.

Stone-Manning’s time working for Tester — who came to her defense during her tense confirmation hearings last year, saying she was “imminently qualified” to lead BLM — overlapped with a tricky era for Western states. The Obama administration went from amplifying natural gas production on public lands as an economic engine to escape the recession to trying to curb energy’s prominence on those lands and increase regulation on greenhouse gas emissions.

By the time Stone-Manning left Tester’s office and joined Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality as director in 2013, the White House was embracing a tougher approach, beginning the first draft of a coal power emissions regulation that would spark bitter partisan divide: the Clean Power Plan.

The CPP would be a hallmark of the Obama administration’s final years, an aggressive change in regulation of carbon dioxide that sent shivers through Western coal country, where the lion’s share of the national coal supply for power plants is mined. The Powder River Basin is the biggest coal-producing basin in the country, and it lies along eastern Wyoming and Montana.

O’Mara at the time was secretary of natural resources and environmental control in Delaware. He remembered becoming fast friends with Stone-Manning as they worked on a cross-state coalition to weigh in on development of the CPP, which would end up being gutted by the Trump administration and tied up in court (Energywire, Feb. 3).

During the debates, though, local impact of the regulation on Montana’s coal industry was foremost in Stone-Manning’s mind, O’Mara recalled.

“She was so focused on how to maintain the economic diversification of Montana, because she was seeing different industries struggle,” he said. “I mean, we’re still in the Great Recession at this time.”

She was one of the first people he recalls making a case for boosting Montana’s outdoor economy to help rural communities build up their economic diversity. And she was highly focused on transitioning fossil fuel workers, he said.

“Our very first conversation, everything was like, ‘How does it affect mine workers?’” he said. “She was always thinking about people.”

Stone-Manning stayed at Montana’s DEQ for nearly two years, taking a direct hand in permitting industry and mining proposals. Knudsen, the rancher, said she wasn’t sure if that post, which often finds conflict with conservation interests, was a perfect fit for Stone-Manning. The Clark Fork Coalition would successfully sue Stone-Manning and DEQ over a water permit.

In 2014, Stone-Manning moved from DEQ to become chief of staff for Bullock, like Tester another moderate Democrat who supported some fossil fuel development. That position gave her significant exposure to an issue that’s dominated oil on public land debates in recent years: the sage grouse.

The bird’s population has plummeted over the last 40 years, but leaders in states like Montana wished to avoid an endangered species listing that would be highly restrictive for energy and mining operations in the bird’s habitat, as well as frustrate ranchers with bird habitat on their lands.

The governor’s office worked alongside more conservative officials from states like Wyoming — and with federal agencies like BLM — to pen protections for the bird to stave off a listing. And Bullock would stand alongside Obama’s Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and other Western governors in 2015 to announce they’d been successful in coming up with an agreement that could likely balance energy development and the bird’s conservation.

It was a challenge for different states to compromise, recalled David Willms, who worked in former Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead’s (R) office at the time, often crossing paths with Stone-Manning on shared state issues like sage grouse.

“Doing what was right for individual states meant collaborating with other states to get the end result we all wanted, which was we didn’t want to see sage grouse listed [as an endangered species], and we wanted to be able to balance all the various uses of public lands in the state to ensure that we didn’t have significant economic impacts,” he said.

On a personal note, Willms said that Stone-Manning’s character is reflected in her push years later to hire him at NWF. He’s currently the senior director of Western wildlife and conservation at the organization.

Stone-Manning supported hiring him not despite his “pretty conservative background” but because of it, he said.

“She valued the perspective that I would bring, looking at conservation issues through a slightly different lens,” he said. “Her whole objective is on finding solutions that could work for as many people as possible.”

The Trump era and the national spotlight

Republican critics of Stone-Manning didn’t just focus on her graduate school activism during her confirmation hearings. They also found ammunition in her time at NWF during the Trump administration.

Stone-Manning joined the group in the fall of 2017. The new role gave Stone-Manning broad experience with federal land issues from a national perspective. It also put her in conflict with the administration’s so-called energy dominance agenda.

In a 2020 tweet, she called noncompetitive leasing, when oil and gas prospectors get a discount rate on federal leases by buying them after auctions, a “wasteful practice.” In another, she said the Trump administration’s approach had meant leasing for oil and gas “in all the wrong places” — a tweet that she was grilled about during her confirmation hearing.

Stone-Manning was particularly opposed to unraveling federal policies in favor of energy interests.

As then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke pushed to open the sage grouse protections brokered by the Obama administration and Western states, Stone-Manning wrote an op-ed calling it “perplexing.”

Zinke’s vision of change included removing language to prioritize oil and gas outside of the bird’s best habitats and could have allowed mining in important bird habitats. Some argued the changes that were ultimately enacted were minor, even surgical, leaving the heart of the conservation management strategy intact. Stone-Manning, echoing most of the conservation community, disagreed.

“If you allow exception after exception, that might make sense for a particular project in a particular spot, but you add them all together and you have death by a thousand cuts,” she said at the time.

In November, BLM said it would embark on a new analysis that could lead to changes in the 2015 sage grouse protection plans. Stone-Manning pledged that the bureau is “committed to reversing long-term downward trends in sage grouse populations and habitats in a manner that fulfills our multiple use and sustained yield mission and meets the needs of Western communities” (Greenwire, Nov. 19, 2021).

Interior declined to provide an interview with Stone-Manning for this story. But Stone-Manning has been clear about her conservation goals for public lands. She’s advanced the idea that some lands are better for conservation, just as some are suitable for energy.

“Multiple use doesn’t mean every single acre has all those uses,” she told Outside Magazine in her first interview after taking the helm of BLM, and she said that balance is what she sees as the “mandate” of BLM. “It means being smart about all those uses. Where is it appropriate to do oil and gas development? Where is it appropriate to do renewable energy?”

But it’s not been lost on oil advocates that Biden officials often stress how many leases oil and gas drillers already hold, with the majority yet to be drilled. Even as the Biden administration has eclipsed the pace of approval of new oil wells compared to the Trump administration’s first year in office, anxiety is high that leasing could be stifled.

Olson, of the Montana Petroleum Association, said Stone-Manning made some troubling comments during her confirmation, such as that oil and gas development on public lands locks out other uses like recreation or conservation.

“If they’re looking at withdrawing mineral acres, slowing down development on federal minerals, that’s going to have a significant impact on state revenues,” he said. “That’s money that pays for education. That’s money that goes into health and human services, just about everything in a state budget.”

On the other side of the oil debate, however, conservationists are equally resolute that Stone-Manning act to curb drilling, and she could face increasing conflict from that flank, some said.

Stone-Manning’s nomination to lead BLM at first earned widespread praise from the environmental community, who viewed her as an ally in reining in fossil fuel development as a matter of climate policy.

“Tracy Stone-Manning will make sure our public lands become part of the climate solution, rather than exacerbating the climate crisis,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, when Stone-Manning was confirmed.

O’Mara, Stone-Manning’s former colleague at NWF, said she understands this big picture, a need to not just reform federal land policies but to use them as a tool to shift the country away from fossil fuels.

“The goal, right, is to go from a universe where BLM lands are the source of 25 percent of emissions to a place where BLM lands are actually a carbon sink,” he said, quoting the U.S. Geological Survey estimate that a quarter of the nation’s carbon pollution is coming from the combustion of oil, gas and coal taken from federal lands.

But how Stone-Manning eventually scores on big climate goals isn’t yet clear.

Many groups have begun to sour on the administration for not aggressively halting the federal oil and gas program, pointing to the current pace of drilling and several upcoming oil and gas lease sales as broken campaign promises. But that frustration has been directed at the administration more broadly since Stone-Manning started the BLM job in the fall.

“With Tracy, I mean, it’s TBD,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “We haven’t seen a situation yet where she’s had to choose, does she pick climate, or does she pick oil and gas?”

But groups are looking for her to carry out a shift on public lands, he said.

“We’re going to be watching closely and scrutinizing her actions, and we will hold her accountable one way or another,” he said. “We have an expectation that the administration exercises some restraint when it comes to fossil fuel production from public lands … if they can show us that they actually have the gumption or the wherewithal to tell the industry, ‘No.’”

The energy conflict is likely to simmer throughout the Biden administration.

In one of her first interviews as director, late last year, Stone-Manning acknowledged to The Montana Standard the conflicting opinions she faces.

“My focus is going to be consistently on trying to solve problems with people who are willing to come to the table to work on them,” she said. “The only way through the polarization is to be frank and transparent.”

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