FORT COLLINS, Colo. ― William Perry Pendley, the controversial acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, told a room full of journalists on Friday that his opinions on climate change and immigrants are “irrelevant” to his job overseeing 245 million acres of public land.
Speaking on a panel at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference, Pendley, a conservative lawyer who has spent his career fighting federal land protections and environmental regulation, sparred repeatedly with reporters.
He refused to comment about his past statements that cast doubt on basic climate science and compared immigrants to a “cancer.” He also repeatedly responded to questions by saying, “I disagree with your premise.”
As recently as February, Pendley compared the climate crisis to a “unicorn” because “neither exists.”
Asked to clarify his position on Friday, he deferred to his boss, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist who has said he hasn’t lost sleep over soaring atmospheric carbon dioxide and blamed Congress for his own inaction on the climate. Bernhardt had been scheduled to appear at the conference but canceled.
“I’m not a scientist, I’m a lawyer,” Pendley said. “I defer to the secretary. He’s been very clear on this subject. He believes that climate change is real, that mankind has an impact, that we’re unable to project future climate conditions, but that we need to understand the consequences.”
Asked again about his own views, Pendley balked: “Nope, I’m not going to clarify. Those are my personal opinions,” he said. “I’m a Marine. I follow orders.”
Pendley added that he has not been briefed on climate impacts to America’s public lands in the three months he’s been acting head of the BLM.
In 2007, Pendley referred to undocumented immigrants as “spreading like a cancer” in a fundraising mailer for his legal fund resurfaced by CNN this week. When pressed on Friday about the statement, Pendley brushed off the question entirely.
“My personal opinions are irrelevant,” he said. “I have a new job now. I’m a zealous advocate for my client. My client is the American people and my bosses are the president of the United States and Secretary Bernhardt. What I thought, what I wrote, what I did in the past is irrelevant. I have orders, I have laws to obey, and I intend to do that.”
Pendley didn’t hesitate, though, to slam Democratic presidential candidates who have pledged to stop new fossil fuel leasing on public lands for fossil fuel development if elected.
“Such a policy would be absolutely devastating; it would be absolutely devastating not just to the American West, but to the entire country,” he said. Leaving fossil fuels in the ground, he added, would be “absolutely insane” and “a terrible blow to the American people.”
“My personal opinions are irrelevant.”
The room, as moderators requested, refrained from clapping or booing throughout the panel, which included a gas company executive, a professor at Boise State University, an American Indian studies academic, an environmentalist and a representative of the outdoor recreation industry. But at one point, the audience in the packed auditorium at Colorado State University gasped as Pendley abruptly interrupted a Denver Post reporter as she asked a follow-up question, saying, “You want to ask a question and get an answer or do you want to keep talking?”
Pendley was asked about the BLM’s decision in May to scrub language about land stewardship from its news releases, which now exclusively highlights the economic value of America’s public lands. He initially shrugged and whispered inaudibly to Shea Loper, the U.S. government relations chief for the Canadian gas giant Encana Corp. He said he was unable to speak to the decision because it occurred before he arrived at the agency.
“I can’t respond to your question,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
At the end of the discussion, panelists were asked what they view as the biggest threat facing public lands today. Pendley responded, “I’ll get really in the weeds. I think the biggest issue I see is the wild horse and burro issue. We have 88,000 wild horses and burros on our Western federal lands. They are causing havoc on the lands.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that the mayor of Fort Collins was a panelist. He provided opening remarks but was not on the panel.