Watchdog Says Top Interior Official Held Oil Company Interests as Agency Regulated Competitors

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
January 31, 2023USshare
Watchdog Says Top Interior Official Held Oil Company Interests as Agency Regulated Competitors
A part of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System is seen in Fairbanks, Alaska, on Sept. 17, 2019. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The second highest-ranked official in the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at the Department of the Interior (DOI) has been accused of failing to divest from her stakes in a major oil company whose competitors were regulated by her agency.

On Monday, a nonprofit organization called Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT) filed a complaint against BLM Deputy Director of Policy and Programs Nada Culver. PPT claims that Culver maintained investments in ConocoPhillips, a major crude oil producer in Alaska, at a time when the BLM suspended multiple competing oil and gas leases in the state.

The complaint specifically alleges that Culver also maintained interests in Conoco by way of her husband’s bond holdings, which would also be considered a prohibited investment.

Weeks before the start of the Biden administration on Jan. 20, 2021, the DOI’s ethics office informed Culver of her obligation to divest from prohibited financial interests prior to joining the department. Culver reportedly received further advice to divest from her prohibited financial interests during an Interim Ethics Guidance from the ethics office on March 11, 2021, and later on received an “urgent admonition” to divest, according to PPT.

“Ms. Culver only sold her interests in ConocoPhillips 224 days after the first of these events and more than 110 after the Department ethics officials took emergency action to admonish her to divest of all oil and gas interests immediately,” PPT said. “These facts lend considerable support to concerns that Ms. Culver violated her ethics obligations by continuing to hold prohibited financial interests for months.”

Culver was working with BLM when the agency suspended multiple leases in the Alaskan Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program on June 1, 2021. Further, Culver was listed as the point of contact for leaseholders affected by the suspensions.

According to PPT, while BLM suspended many leases in the Coastal Plain Program, ConocoPhillips’ lease for its Willow Project was approved. The Willow Project is projected to produce 600 million barrels of oil over its lifespan.

“ConocoPhillips only stood to benefit from the suspensions of competing Alaskan producers,” PPT said.

PPT obtained a copy of an email from Culver in which she requested the contact information for ConocoPhillips. Culver sent that email on June 2, 2021, the day after BLM suspended other oil and gas leases in the area. 

According to a September 2021 financial disclosure, Culver sold her ConocoPhillips on Aug. 16, 2021. The shares were valued between $1,000 and $15,000.

According to PPT, in addition to her ConocoPhillips investments, Culver allegedly held 40 other prohibited financial interests that required her to have an ethics waiver or recuse herself in certain circumstances.

Complaints Against Culver

This is not the first ethics complaint that PPT has raised against Culver.

In June 2021, the organization filed a complaint alleging that Culver had violated the Biden administration’s ethics pledge, which bars political appointees from participating in particular matters related to their former employers and clients.

PPT alleged that Culver had enacted several proposals sought by her former employer, the National Audobon Society. Culver had previously been vice president of public lands and the senior policy counsel at the National Audubon Society, a non-profit organization, focused on bird conservation.

During Culver’s time with the National Audobon Society, the organization had called on BLM to halt Public Land Orders (PLOs) to allow mineral extraction. After Culver joined the BLM, the agency has sought to overturn such PLOs, leading PPT to allege she violated the Biden ethics pledge.

In August 2022, the DOI Inspector General published a report with a determination that an unnamed BLM official had “worked on public land orders (PLOs) and assisted with litigation against the BLM that involved the BLM Official’s former employers.” Though the inspector general report did not name the official, PPT believes the report describes Culver.

NTD News reached out to Culver and BLM for comment, but neither responded in time for publication.

ntd newsletter icon
Sign up for NTD Daily
What you need to know, summarized in one email.
Stay informed with accurate news you can trust.
By registering for the newsletter, you agree to the Privacy Policy.