26 May 2017

Four months in, the Trump Administration has no dearth of challenges and controversies.  Reams have been, and will be, written documenting chaos, real and alleged.  To energy producers and other businesses that have encountered the arrogance and morass of the EPA, the BLM, US Forest Service, OSHA, the Army Corps of Engineers and the legions that worship at the altar of process, the arrival of a small government mindset is a godsend.

The potential cuts at EPA, Interior and other agencies are a welcome pause in the rampant growth of the state apparatus.  Most telling are the tales of woe from career bureaucrats bemoaning the goring of their multiple oxen.  Their sacrosanct missions to save the Earth (no matter the cost), to Keep It In the Ground (regardless of job loss and eroding security), to wage war on carbon (enact a new tax!!) and to erect wind towers and build solar “farms” (no matter the environmental degradation and wildlife cost) are now endangered.

The public accords some government agencies with trust and respect – the EPA, the SEC and others perceived by the public and touted by the media as “protecting the public.”  Others, for example the IRS, not so much.   Mischief in government is hardly the sole province of the IRS.  Mischief by the EPA, the Department of Justice and the BLM never seems to make the news, though recent experience illustrates they are strikingly similar to IRS overreach, if not outright illegal.  It is instructive to peer back into the distant mists of time to 1970 when President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law.

“The purpose of NEPA is to insure environmental factors are weighted equally when compared to other factors in the decision-making process undertaken by federal agencies and to establish a national environmental policy.”  The total text of the bill was less than 10 pages, and, note that the text quoted above states “weighted equally.”

The EPA monolith of rules, outrageous costs (sue and settle), and intrusion into nearly every facet of American commerce is far afield from the law’s original intent.  And bureaucrats will, as bureaucrats do, grow the “business” to assure job security and more power in the name of protecting defenseless citizens from big, bad private enterprise.  Here are some peeks behind the “curtain of purity” secreting the dirty little misdeeds of some “public servants.”

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“I have to book a quick trip.”

“I need to make a copy.”

“I need some pens and paper clips.”

“My driver’s license needs renewal.”

All of us have experienced the mind-numbing exercise of entering the bureaucrat’s fiefdom – both in business and in governments “fill out this form, what’s your password? wait over there, here are the corporate travel rules – be sure to comply, we want it the other way – start over.”  Ad infinitum…

Gatekeepers of whatever stripe have a vested interest in maintaining and expanding the import of their little fiefdom.  Convoluted instructions are formulated, forms generated, procedures formalized and obstacles constructed all in the aid of calcifying bureaucracy and securing the future of the gatekeeper.  The “keepers” range from the comatose to the simply inert, across the continuum to the passive aggressive and onward to the menacing.  Some defend their turf with the ferocity of a lamprey defending its lair, and some say there is the rare bureaucrat who seeks to serve and assist through the maze.  We’ve heard these exist…but…

Across our fair land we grudgingly, with some exceptions, live through the sclerosis of the bureaucrats’ constructs to accomplish the necessary, the vital, the critical.  Irritating?  Yes.  Maddening?  At times.  Vindictive?  Pull up a chair.

In the decades of dealing with government agencies, departments and bureaus – one develops a special loathing for the petty, the mean-spirited and sometimes evil overlords of the bureaucracy.  Yes – evil. While recuperating from the crud, the Policysmith reflected on these ugly chapters across the years and determined sharing is a good thing.  Your average citizen is unaware of the below the radar hijinks and monkeyshines of those characterized as “land managers,” custodians of the environment and the government attorneys who “serve” justice at Justice.

These episodes range from simply bizarre to intensely chilling.  Take the federal permitting employee whom the federal government provided a new pick-up truck.  The old one lived a useful life, taking a battering having been driven across roadless range, through the woods and up and down the mountains.  But with the new truck secured, our federal employee could not find it in his schedule to go the field.  He would schedule but never show up.

Hmm –que pasa?  Turns out he couldn’t bring himself to head to the field because – he didn’t want to get his new vehicle dirty!

In western Colorado several years back, a new BLM office director was placed after serving as a Forest Service director in Oregon.  The director came to the role with zero oil and gas experience, but plenty of particularly truculent demands for the public companies developing a coalbed methane resource.  One company was told to report to the district office prepared to outline its five-year development plan…well by well.  The operating team explained that each well in the program had its results analyzed and that analysis dictated location, depth and engineering for the next set of wells.  It would be impossible, the team stated, to spot five years’ worth of wells with zero results for guidance.

The new director roared, “I can count the trees, you will count the wells!”  They were ordered to come back after lunch with the wells spotted and counted – five years out.  So out they go the parking lot, spread a map on the hood of a pickup and begin spotting and counting every well in a five-year drilling program…hundreds of them.  These were employees of a public company, with an executive committee and a board of directors.  No budget had been determined, the investment community had not been informed and disaster was in the offing.

Fortunately, an advisor was riding along and halted the proceedings.  The team was asked about the board, about a budget and about disclosing five years of drilling and expense in this public forum.  The mandates of what is known as SEC Regulation FD were reviewed – in brief it requires disclosure of operations and expense data to all investors, not an isolated disclosure to any one individual.

As the group reassembled in early afternoon, the advisor stood when the director demanded, “Well?” This abrupt demand of these geologists, engineers and other professionals was disdainful – the gatekeeper guarding her fiefdom.  The advisor inquired whether the director was familiar with Regulation FD.  “No.”   SEC fiscal and fiduciary requirements? “No.”  Aware of any constraints of any kind on publicly traded companies? “No.”

What is private enterprise to do?  Peel the hide from a public servant to whom they must return to conduct business and seek permits?  Go along to get along?  How is it that such truculence and preening are becoming more evident?  We’ll examine this phenomenon in subsequent entries.

Back to this district manager, she was politely informed that her request would not, and could not be acted upon for the constraints imposed by higher authorities and legal mandates.  Admittedly her grudging acceptance is something of an anti-climax, but hang around, some fireworks to come.

Up next – don’t tug on Superman’s cape!

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