Senior Biden Official Stood To Profit From Canceling Alaska Oil Leases, Watchdog Charges

Nada Wolff Culver's failure to divest was an 'egregious’ ethics violation, according to complaint

Nada Culver (YouTube)
January 30, 2023

A senior Biden administration official who suspended drilling leases in Alaska stood to profit from the decision, which may put her in violation of federal law, a watchdog group says.

Protect the Public’s Trust on Monday said that then-acting director of the Bureau of Land Management Nada Wolff Culver could have benefited from a 2021 suspension of three Trump-era drilling leases. Culver owned up to $15,000 in bonds with the energy conglomerate ConocoPhillips, which the watchdog says stood to profit off the government strong-arming its competitors out of the region.

The bond Culver owned saw its market rate increase by about 1.5 percent after the announcement. But according to Protect the Public Trust, Culver violated the Interior Department policies by simply owning Conoco bonds. Her failure to divest from her energy investments is "the most egregious example yet of the considerable disregard for ethics compliance at the Department of the Interior under Secretary Deb Haaland," said the group’s director, Michael Chamberlain.

The Interior Department suspended the Alaskan leases on June 1 and told the impacted companies to direct any questions about the matter to Culver. The same day as the suspensions, Conoco publicly thanked Culver’s agency and the Biden administration for clearing its proposed $8 billion Alaskan oil drilling enterprise, Willow Master Development Plan.

Conoco’s statement caught Culver’s attention, according to records obtained by Protect the Public’s Trust. On June 2, 2021, Culver sent an email to an unknown individual asking for a "good contact at Conoco" to discuss its comments.

Protect the Public Trust filed an official complaint with Interior Department inspector general Mark Lee Greenblatt, urging him to investigate whether Culver’s ethical "malfeasance and abuse" is a violation of federal law. The watchdog cited records showing that ethics officials had warned Culver on April 23, 2021, that she was barred from engaging in any oil and gas leasing matters until she and her husband divested from all department-designated "prohibited investments," which included Conoco. But Culver didn’t divest from her Conoco interest until Aug. 16, 2021.

This is the latest ethical dustup for Culver, who is now the deputy director of policy and programs at the Bureau of Land Management. In August, federal investigators found she had violated the Biden Ethics Pledge by having an unapproved meeting with her former employer while she led the agency in 2021.

The Biden administration is expected to issue a final decision on the project, which could yield 180,000 barrels of oil a day, by March. Environmentalists have accused the Biden administration of ushering the project through the approval process with too little oversight. Protesters rallied outside the White House in early January demanding the Biden administration block the project. Posters stating "hell no to Willow" lined the sidewalk outside the Interior Department as recently as Thursday afternoon.

Meanwhile, the Willow Project has the support of Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said in January that his office has been inundated with calls from labor unions urging the Biden administration to approve the project.

The Bureau of Land Management has been a breeding ground for ethical scandals on President Joe Biden’s watch. The Bureau’s director, Tracy Stone-Manning, narrowly escaped prosecution in 1993 for her collaboration in an eco-terrorist tree-spiking plot. Numerous Senate Republicans accused Stone-Manning of lying about her involvement in the plot during her confirmation hearings in 2021.