By Theo Spencer, Natural Resources Defense Council
You may not be aware that the US Department of Interior controls one fifth of the land in the United States—including our national parks, and 35,000 miles of coastline—and manages the drinking water of one in 10 Americans.
Most people also probably aren’t aware that President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are in the midst of an unprecedented assault on these public resources in what appears to be a vast giveaway to select group of dirty energy companies. Most of this unfolding strategy is secretive, like the review—and shrinking—of America’s national monuments, and it’s coming under the guise of “deregulation,” “streamlining,” and “reorganization.”
Further down in this post is a rundown of some of the most disturbing actions.
A closer look reveals an agenda that doesn’t just undermine the conservation legacy of America’s public lands, it guts it. This agenda aligns closely with President Trump’s quest to assert U.S. “energy dominance” despite the fact the U.S. energy security is more than healthy, as we’re producing enough coal, gas and oil to export it. In fact last year—thanks in part to exploitation of publicly owned resources—the US become the world’s top net exporter of fuel.
And the Interior Department continues a long history of short-changing taxpayers by selling off publicly-owned resources at fire sale prices. In 2017, the federal oil and gas program once again made the non-partisan Government Accountability Office’s “High Risk” list for being “federal programs and operations that are especially vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement, or that need transformational change.”
The lands and waters managed by the Interior Department belong solely to the American people. Not oil, gas and coal companies. Our public parks, monuments, national forests, wildlands are a unique part of our collective heritage. Preserving them has been one of America’s great innovations. It’s our duty to protect these lands and waters for this and future generations, not to allow them to be despoiled or sold off to cronies and companies pursuing a 19th century energy agenda.
Directly below is my stab at the five worst. But it’s tough to narrow the list down, so lower down you’ll find a more inclusive, but not comprehensive accounting.
Attack on Special Places: National Monuments
Zinke recently sent a secretive report with draft recommendations to shrink many national monuments. (A New York Times report says Zinke’s review calls for slashing the size of Bears Ears in Southern Utah by nearly 90% to 160,000 acres). Zinke’s recommendations were the result of an Executive Order by Trump to review the designation of special places such as Bears Ears by previous presidents. The order directed the Secretary of Interior to review federal monument designations—including national parks—made since 1996 that cover more than 100,000 acres of land. No national monument designation has ever been rescinded by a president. Zinke frequently compares himself to Teddy Roosevelt, who established the Antiquities Act which allows for the designation of national monuments. Zinke earlier this summer proposed shrinking Bears Ears, stating the designation was “not the best use of the land.” The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, comprised of the five sovereign Navajo, Hopi, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni nations, declared that shrinking Bears Ears would be a “slap in the face to the members of our Tribes and an affront to Indian people all across the country.”
NRDC is ready to sue if and when the recommendations become final. It’s pretty clear what Zinke and the fossil fuel interests that saturate the Administration see as the best use: fossil fuel extraction. Below the 100,000 archeological sites and myriad other sacred Native American cultural and religious sites that dot Bears Ears National Monument lie potentially recoverable fossil fuel reserves.
Sage Grouse “Review”
In 2015—after years of consultation with Western state governors, private landowners, sportsmen and women, conservation groups, scientists, energy representatives—a landmark conservation plan was put in place protecting this endangered, iconic bird and its western habitat—the “sagebrush sea” which stretches across 11 states. It was one of the largest conservation moves in US history. Zinke ordered a review in June of the plan in June, and earlier this month released a plan that cuts back on wildlife protection in favor of oil, gas, mining and ranching interests. There used to be millions of sage grouse in the West, but development, livestock grazing and an invasive grass that encourages wildfires has reduced the bird’s population to fewer than 500,000.
Gutting Climate Protections
For starters, Zinke has scrubbed almost any mention of climate change from Interior and its agency’s myriad websites. Also, photos of melting glaciers and forest fires have been replaced with those of giant coal piles and mines. In April, Zinke signed two Executive Orders, one rolling back an updating of the federal coal leasing program (see below), and another ordering a review and subsequent denuding of basically any (Obama Administration) policy relating to climate. This includes policies intended to restrict fossil fuel development in special places. Like Wildlife Refuges.
Department ‘Reorganization’/Attacks on Employees/Stifling Citizen Input
Zinke in June gave notice to as many as 50 senior Interior Department executives that they were being ‘reassigned’ as part of a broad, agency-wide reorganization. The move, however, seems like little more than a naked effort to force out top career staff who are experts on issues like climate change. As one of the experts wrote in the Washington Post: “Silencing civil servants, stifling science, squandering taxpayer money and spurning communities in the face of imminent danger have never made America great.”
Zinke has also suspended more than 200 citizen advisory panels while his agency reviews the “charter and charge” of each panel. This would entail postponing various meetings through at least September—at a time when major new policy changes, such as the reviewing of national monument designations and the opening of public lands to energy development, are expected soon. In addition, Zinke has laid out plans to move the headquarters of three key agencies, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation, to Denver. Lyn Scarlett, a former Acting Secretary of the Interior under George W. Bush told E&E news: “Reorganization is not free. It comes with political costs, practical costs, human capital costs. So you really have to ask, what is it that you are trying to accomplish, and what are the best ways to accomplish that?”
Abandoning a 30 Years-In-The Making Overhaul of The Federal Coal Program
The Interior Department’s own Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office and numerous Congressional and outside investigations agreed that the federal coal leasing program was broken, short-changing taxpayers $1 billion a year, and more than $30 billion over 30 years. Fully 40 percent of all the coal burned in the US comes from federal land (and 10 percent of national carbon emissions), and Bureau of Land Management has been basically giving this public resource away for less than $1 a ton, through a non-competitive sales process. With prices so low, Big Coal had been stockpiling reserves to boost their balance sheets.
In early 2016, Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, citing companies’ 20 years of reserves, put a moratorium on new lease sales until the broken program could be overhauled, through a rigorous and open public process. But citing a mythical ‘War on Coal,’ Trump and Zinke cancelled the common sense overhaul.
That’s my top five. For a bit of perspective: there are few oil and gas industry lobbyists more strident, or unapologetically pro-development at any cost than Kathleen Sgamma, president Western Energy Alliance. She recently told the New York Times, “not in our wildest dreams, never did we expect to get everything.” (CK quote)
Below are a few more examples of what she’s talking about.
Fast Tracking Fossil Fuel Development
In an effort to boost fossil fuel production on federal lands, Zinke announced Interior will cut permitting wait time and hold more frequent lease sales. His order directs officials to issue new drilling permits within 30 days—a significantly shorter window than last year’s average of 257 days—and hold quarterly lease sales, regardless of interest from the oil and gas industry, which is already sitting on thousands of permits on millions of acres of leased land. The move will enable oil and gas companies to lock up or stock-pile even more publicly-owned resources on the cheap. And in under the radar release over Labor Day Weekend, Zinke issued on order to “streamline” the bedrock environmental review process for major fossil fuel sales and similar actions. In typical five-year-old logic fashion, the Administration limited final environmental reviews to 150 pages, or 300 “unusually complex projects.” If they stand up in court—unclear—such processes would likely allow less public oversight of how our public lands are used, most probably to the benefit of fossil fuel companies.
Gutting the Interior Department’s budget
Zinke initially opposed efforts to slash Interior’s already thin budget, but then caved to pressure from the White House. Now he’s endorsing a budget that puts our health and environment last, cutting 4,000 jobs, opening the door to more pollution, and fewer public health, land and wildlife protections. Some examples: A fund to reclaim old coal mines—extremely popular in places like West Virginia—would be decimated. If approved, the budget would forbid employees from assessing the Social Cost of Carbon (climate change impacts) of DOI activities like dirty energy lease sales. On the other hand, the budget proposes dramatically increases staff who handle new fossil fuel lease sales.
Opening the Arctic Reserve
Zinke directed that his agency develop plans for increasing oil production in Alaska’s vast Western Arctic reserve near the much-battled Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), as well as complete an assessment of how much oil and natural gas could be extracted from the coastal plain of ANWR itself. The move sidelines a Management Plan Interior had spent years developing with tribes, local governments, the state and other stakeholders.
Allowing Dirty Energy Companies to Avoid Paying Proper Royalty Rates
During his confirmation hearing for the job of running the Department of the Interior, Ryan Zinke told the Senate he wanted taxpayers to get “fair value” on resources extracted from public lands by private companies. But then he got rid of an Obama-era rule that closed a loophole dirty energy companies had been using to avoid paying proper royalties on taxpayer-owned oil, gas and coal on public lands. The move will cost taxpayers and state governments tens of millions of dollars annually.
These are our public lands, our special places. They are the legacy we leave to our children. It’s time to stop this dirty energy agenda. The lands and waters managed by the Interior Department belong solely to the American people. Not oil, gas and coal companies.