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Missoula, MT, Aug. 14, 2019— Late yesterday, a federal court ruled that the Trump administration violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) by unlawfully forming the Royalty Policy Committee (RPC), an advisory body stacked with fossil fuel lobbyists. As formed by the Trump administration, the Committee put fossil fuel lobbyists in a position to drive federal mineral policy on public and private lands. The legal victory was secured in a lawsuit filed by Democracy Forward and the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC). In a rare rebuke, the court also barred the Department of Interior from relying or using any recommendations provided by the RPC.

“The court’s ruling is clear: the Trump administration illegally formed a committee stacked with industry lobbyists to advise on rules for the development of public lands and minerals,” said Ellen Pfister, rancher near Shepherd, Mont., and member of WORC. “The Royalty Policy Committee was one-sided from the start and left out the views of ranchers, conservationists and anyone who opposes the administration’s ‘energy dominance’ agenda. We are pleased that the administration is prevented from relying on any of its recommendations.”

“The Trump administration tried to sidestep the law and hand over America’s public lands agenda to the fossil fuel industry, but the rule of law prevailed,” said Democracy Forward Litigation Director Javier Guzman. “Federal law protects the public from this kind of corrupt policymaking. This is a significant victory for our public lands and for the principle of government accountability.”

The RPC was created by former-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and continued to operate under Secretary David Bernhardt. The court was unsparing in its criticism of the RPC’s formation, stating that “[t]he agency had the obligation and opportunity to comply with FACA from the start. It did not do so…[and] it cannot now rely on recommendations from an advisory committee whose very existence flies in the face of FACA.”

The RPC issued dozens of recommendations for DOI action that benefit extractive industries at the expense of other uses of public lands and other stakeholders. These include:

  • Shortening timelines for drilling permits by limiting public and environmental review.
  • Allowing coal companies to calculate the royalties they pay to the public by using non-arm’s length transactions.

The Trump administration has mounted a sustained attack on the safeguards provided by FACA. In June, President Trump issued an Executive Order that would effectively eliminate many lawful advisory committees, allowing the administration to expand its practice of using unlawful committees filled with industry executives and cronies of the President and his advisors, positioning them to advise on federal policies from which they stand to benefit.

Background: The Trump Administration’s RPC was formed in 2017 and stacked with representatives of the fossil fuels industry, with no members representing ranchers, local landowners, taxpayers, or conservationists. In August 2018, WORC, represented by Democracy Forward filed suit against the Trump administration, demanding that the RPC stop convening meetings or conducting further business until the administration complies with federal laws governing advisory committees. In April 2019, after the groups defeated the administration’s attempt to dismiss their lawsuit, DOI disbanded the Royalty Policy Committee. On August 13, 2019, the groups secured a legal victory with a court declaration that the RPC was unlawfully formed and that the Trump administration is barred from relying on or using any of the public lands policy recommendations provided by the RPC.

Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy areas, represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law. 

WORC is a regional network of grassroots community organizations that include 15,190 members and 39 local chapters. WORC helps its member groups succeed by providing training and coordinating issue work.