BLM fires critical environmental analyst on second try

A group supporting public employees is challenging the firing of an environmental analyst who said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s approval of a Delaware-sized oilfield in Converse County failed to protect migratory birds as required.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said in late November it is appealing the firing of Walter Loewen, who had been terminated about a week earlier. 

The six-year BLM employee in Wyoming had objected to his superiors’ disregard for deleterious effects development of 5,000 oil or gas wells near Douglas would have on nesting sites for ferruginous hawks, kestrels, owls and other birds.

PEER contends Loewen ran afoul of the energy-dominance agenda of the Trump administration when he raised worries about the birds. The environmental analyst was fired under Trump-era rules that President Joe Biden’s administration had rescinded even before the latest termination machinations began, the watchdog group contends.

“Given the BLM’s record of butchering [the National Environmental Policy Act] during the Trump years, this action can be understood as a chastised bureaucracy seeking to kill the messenger,” PEER Senior Counsel Peter Jenkins wrote in a statement in November. “We look forward to highlighting the pro-oil and gas industry dysfunction within the Wyoming State [BLM] Office and how that led to this counterproductive decision.”

The Bureau of Land Management approved the development in December 2020 despite criticism from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others. The development across 2.4% of Wyoming’s landscape was projected to create 8,000 jobs and $18 billion to $28 billion in federal revenues.

But the agency had sidelined Loewen in 2019 after he raised worries about the birds, PEER contends. The whistleblower’s defenders took up his case in 2020. The initial termination effort fell short, but the BLM persisted and brought a new case against Loewen in 2021.

The BLM does not comment on personnel matters, an agency spokeswoman said in an email this week. But documents made public by PEER show the agency’s reasoning.

“This proposed removal is based on the charges of unacceptable performance and failure to follow instructions,” the BLM wrote Loewen. The explanation to the analyst from the BLM’s Wyoming planning branch chief ran 24 pages.

The whistleblower’s defenders said BLM fired Loewen “for disclosing major adverse impacts on migratory birds,” and based the action “on false allegations of misconduct.

“Mr. Loewen is entitled to full reinstatement and compensation for his back pay, back benefits, and his attorneys fees and costs,” PEER said in a statement.