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Editorial: Trump’s arrogance now imperils some of his environmental decisions

William Perry Pendley, then-acting director of the Bureau of Land Management
A judge has invalidated William Perry Pendley’s standing as acting head of the Bureau of Land Management, setting the stage for legal challenges to decisions he made going back more than 15 months, including allowing fracking on federal land in California.
(Chris Dillmann / Vail Daily)

Since he took office nearly four years ago, President Trump has routinely flouted the Constitution’s requirement that top political appointees be confirmed with the “advice and consent” of the U.S. Senate.

Instead, he has used regulatory sleights of hand and outright deception to install people in high-level bureaucratic positions — including secretary of Homeland Security — without his top enabler, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), lifting so much as a finger in objection. And as we all know, improper actions that face no consequences tend to invite more improper actions.

But Trump’s habit of appointing acting officials to sidestep Senate oversight may have finally met its Waterloo. Last month, U.S. District Judge Brian Morris in Montana ruled that the controversial appointment of William Perry Pendley as the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management — an agency that Pendley had fought against tooth and nail when he was an attorney for the oil industry and landowners — violated a federal statute and the Constitution. As a result, Morris ruled, Pendley could not continue in the position he had held for 15 months. The judge also ordered the government to prepare a list of actions taken by Pendley that, since he was in the position unconstitutionally, might be invalid.

Much of this could have been avoided if colleges had thought to do more than just test students and impose rules that everyone knew weren’t going to be followed.

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The government essentially ignored the order. Pendley told the Powell Tribune newspaper in Wyoming this month that the judge’s order “has no impact, no impact whatsoever” and that, with the support of Trump and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, “I’m still here, I’m still running the bureau.”

But on Friday, Morris followed up by throwing out three of the bureau’s land management plans that would have significantly increased the availability of federal lands in Montana for drilling and other extractive industries, a key policy of the Trump administration.

The decision could well be the start of a significant rollback of 15 months’ worth of pro-industry decisions the BLM reached under Pendley’s direction. For starters, environmentalists are zeroing in on more than 16 land management plans, including some affecting the California deserts and the government’s order to allow fracking on federal land in the state.

The Supreme Court will hear cases over President Trump’s border wall funding and his requirement that asylum seekers wait in Mexico. A Biden win likely would make these cases moot.

It’s unclear how all this will play out. The court rulings are from a single federal judge and subject to appeal, and if the administration changes in three months, the government may simply undo many of the BLM’s decisions.

But at a fundamental level, Morris’ rulings bring a glimmer of hope that one of the most irresponsible and unchained administrations in U.S. history might finally be held to account for its arrogance and incompetence, and mark the beginning of a return to normalcy. The day cannot come soon enough.


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