Audio of private meeting shows oil industry ripping into Trump administration

By Ben Lefebvre

At a closed-door meeting this summer, oil and gas industry lawyers criticized the Trump administration's failure to recruit enough qualified people to secure policy victories that would outlast this presidency, according to a recording of the gathering.

The audio from an Independent Petroleum Producers of America meeting in Colorado Springs, Colo., obtained by the Western Values Project and shared with POLITICO, contains some of the most unvarnished opinion coming from an industry that has been happy with the administration’s talk on oil and gas but frustrated with its results.

“Two and a half years later, I don’t see the agencies getting better,” Mark Barron, head of energy litigation in the Denver office of BakerHostetler, told the group. “I don’t see that leadership or competence in the administration.”

The June meeting came amid mounting frustration over the slow pace of the Trump administration’s major energy policies, including regulatory rollbacks at EPA and efforts from the Interior Department to spur new production. A commitment to open up more federal waters to offshore drilling has stalled amid legal and political pushback, the administration's move to expedite permitting of pipelines, including for Keystone XL and the Mountain Valley Pipeline has been challenged in court, and states have sued over a rollback on methane emissions rules that even some oil companies have complained is too broad.

During the meeting, Wayne D’Angelo, head of energy litigation at D.C.-based Kelley Drye & Warren LLP, noted that EarthJustice, Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups had sued the administration more than three hundred times over its rollbacks of Obama-era rules, including those on methane emissions and hydraulic fracturing.

“There is a metric buttload of litigation going on in respect to the regulatory agenda,” D’Angelo said, adding that there were “a lot of early wins for environmental lawsuits.”

“I think you’ll see the agencies focusing on fewer high impact rules” as the 2020 election nears, D’Angelo added. “Maybe continue to do stuff with guidance, in full knowledge that’s easy-come, easy-go. Whatever you do through guidance can be taken away through guidance.”

Barron said the agenda was struggling because of a talent deficit at federal agencies, which he attributed to an unwillingness among many experts to work for President Donald Trump.

"For some, the reticence that comes out of the administration on non-energy components, some of the things he may say about some other issues or you may read tweets about, may suggest to yourself that you don’t want to have speeches like this for the next 25 years or get introduced as such-and-such from the Trump administration," he said. "There’s a real reluctance for some real competent people to serve in this administration, apart from the fact they weren’t going to invite you in if you weren’t supporting him from the beginning."

Barron singled out Interior Secretary David Bernhardt as a rare "competent technocrat," among a mostly inexperienced staff. "They may want to implement policy, but at some point you need people who are familiar with Washington, who know how to draft a regulatory rule, have experience doing that at a big level," he said.

The trade association did not dispute the recording's authenticity. "It seems to be from that meeting," IPAA spokesperson Jennifer Pett said in an email. "However, it was off-the-record, so we did not transcribe or record the conversation; so this document cannot be verified as 100 percent accurate."

In the audio, Katie Schroder, a partner at Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP in Denver who focuses on energy development on federal lands, noted that government lawyers could drop defense of the ongoing lawsuits if Trump loses in 2020.

“At this point, we have to look at the shot clock,” Schroder said at the meeting. “We’re not far from 2020, we’re not far from the next election. Will some of this litigation be resolved by the time the next administration comes in? That’s always part of the calculus."

She said the industry wanted to see more than guidance documents and executive orders from the administration.

"The real win is to get some regulatory changes in place. ... I don’t know if there’s enough energy and drive at Interior to do those things,” she said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report misstated the name of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.