An Agency Hijacked: Public Lands and Waters at Risk

The federal government agency responsible to safeguard over 20 percent of America’s public lands, waters, and wildlife has been hijacked. And it’s an inside job.

The agency is the Interior Department, and the hijacker is the Secretary himself, Ryan Zinke. Zinke often invokes the image of a modern day Teddy Roosevelt, but TR would be appalled by the polluter-driven, anti-conservation agenda Zinke is dictating. 

If there were any doubts about Zinke’s intent, they were put to rest with the release of his Final Report: Review of the Department of the Interior Actions that Potentially Burden Domestic Energy in late October. 

The potential impact if Zinke’s agenda is realized:

  • Removing tens of millions of acres of public lands  from conservation protection and public use, and putting them in play for oil, coal, and gas development;
  • Spoiling America’s largest wild space—the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for unneeded oil drilling;
  • The transformation of millions of acres of the Arctic and Mid-Atlantic ocean coasts into oil fields;
  • Reversing health-harming and climate changing waste and pollution from the oil and gas industry on more than 750 million acres of public and tribal lands;
  • Loss of billions of dollars to U.S. taxpayers, through loopholes and breaks to dirty energy companies who are paying less to lease an acre of public land for oil or coal than it costs to buy a cup of coffee. 
  • A complete reversal of democratic protections that have given the public the right to provide input into how our public lands and waters are used now and in the future.

The Zinke agenda is plain: it’s pro-pollution and against the public interest the Interior Department is supposed to protect. The Interior Department is entrusted to manage America’s natural resources and cultural heritage; provide scientific and other information about those resources; and honor its responsibilities to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and affiliated island communities.

But under Zinke, the Interior Department has turned into a leasing agency for the fossil fuel industry. Zinke has stacked his staff with former dirty energy industry lobbyists, and made it his mission to promote fossil fuels—not to preserve public lands or waters, or promote low-impact clean energy, like solar energy, on public lands.

The Zinke agenda isn’t even good business for American taxpayers. The fossil fuel giveaway will short-change taxpayers, states and local economies tens of millions of dollars annually.

And finally, the Zinke agenda is anything but a responsible energy plan for America. You’ll find plenty of polluting, 19th century ideas in Zinke’s plan, but you’ll find few forward-looking clean energy solutions. 

What is the Interior Department?

Many Americans have no idea what the Interior Department (also known as the U.S. Department of the Interior) is or the different agencies that are part of it. But most Americans come into contact with its domain by visiting a national park, swimming in the ocean, viewing wildlife, or driving past oil and gas rigs.

The Interior Department is one of the largest managers of land and public waters in the world. Overseeing 500 million acres of lands and 1.7 billion acres of water, Interior is the primary steward of America’s public lands and waters for current and future generations.

There are 10 different bureaus in the Department of Interior, many of which play a critically important role from safeguarding our public lands and waters to protecting the public from harmful oil spills. People are likely familiar with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, which host hundreds of millions of visitors annually. But there are other bureaus responsible for management of hundreds of millions of acres of public lands and waters. These include:

  • The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which stewards 247 million acres of lands including wilderness areas and national monuments adding up to one-eighth of all U.S. lands;  
  • The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which manages an area the size of 1.7 billion acres off America’s coasts;
  • Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement which is responsible for addressing oil spills and ensuring oil and gas facilities operate within the law.

Americans entrust this agency and its leaders to safeguard these natural lands and waters so they may be there for future generations. Yet Secretary Zinke is defying this mission, and instead is handing off public lands and waters to drilling and mining industries.

Here are some more elements of Zinke’s dirty energy agenda:

Opening up public oceans to offshore drilling

The Interior Department is pursuing a hugely unpopular plan to open well over 100 million acres of offshore waters to oil drilling in the Mid-Atlantic and Arctic oceans. A big part of Zinke’s agenda is to reverse an an Obama administration program that would keep offshore drilling out of the U.S. Arctic and a number of other sensitive areas including massive Atlantic undersea canyons. The formal plan has not yet been released but already businesses, scientists, and the public have lined up against reversing these Obama-era protections. Opening up America’s oceans for oil drilling makes little sense. The Atlantic Ocean supports a multi-billion sustainable seafood economy while coastal communities require clean and health oceans and beaches. The Arctic is one of the world’s last wild places on earth where oil drilling isn’t just irresponsible but unsafe.

Opening up wildlands to mining and drilling

Interior’s plans also include opening up America’s most outstanding wilderness area as well as public lands in 11 western states for oil, coal, and gas development. These lands are currently set aside for conservation and public use.

One of Zinke’s key targets is America’s last unspoiled wilderness areas. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is considered our grandest “national park” with 19 million acres of spectacular, unspoiled mountains, plains and valleys. It is home to polar bears and caribou, as well as the Gwich’in Indigenous people. Even though the US is the world’s largest exporter of fossil fuels, President Trump and Secretary Zinke want to scar this special place with oil rigs, service roads, compressor stations and thousands of miles of pipelines.

Meanwhile, the Interior Department is tearing up a significant collaborative agreement (one of the largest conservation agreements in US history, spanning 11 states and including private landowners, environmentalists, energy companies, government agencies, and even Republican governors) that would have protected millions of acres of habitat for the imperiled sage grouse. Under the Zinke agenda, this agreement has been axed to make way for fossil fuel development. The move could potentially open up tens of millions of acres of land demonstrated to provide more than $1 billion in outdoor recreation to oil and gas development.

Stopping air pollution protection from the oil and gas industry

Zinke’s agenda has also included attempting to stop the first-ever limits on methane waste and pollution for oil and gas operations on our public lands. The protections established under Obama seek to halt the leaking, venting and flaring of natural gas from oil and gas operations on more than 750 million acres of public and tribal lands—more than seven times the size of California. But Zinke’s agenda was to stop the protections without any public process—no proposal, no public hearing, and no opportunity for public comment. While this is lawless behavior being challenged by NRDC it is yet another example of bypassing public process and health protections in favor of the fossil fuel industry.

Tens of billions of dollars of gifts to the coal, oil and gas industry

Zinke’s actions are also anti-taxpayer. Zinke widened a fossil fuel loophole by reversing Obama-era efforts to modernize the federal coal program, which has not been updated for more than 30 years. An independent audit found that BLM’s federal coal leasing program had short-changed taxpayers $30 billion over three decades. So the Obama administration put a pause on new coal leasing until a thorough, open to the public review and revamping of the program could be completed. But Secretary Zinke has stopped all of this so the archaic program could continue to give coal companies the ability to build massive mines on public lands for as little as $2 per acre.

In addition, Zinke re-opened another loophole that allows coal, oil and gas companies to avoid paying proper royalties. The U.S. government currently leases millions of acres of land to oil, gas, and coal companies but operates under an antiquated royalty system not updated since the 1920s. This  pricing system gives fossil fuel companies access to public lands at rock bottom prices. For decades, the minimum bid to lease public lands for fossil fuel production has been $2 per acre. And annual “rental fees” for these leases have run at $1.50-$2.00 per acre, giving drilling companies access for less than the price of a gallon of gas. 

The Obama Administration closed this loophole, which was costing taxpayers at least $75 million a year, after a multi-year rulemaking that was open to the public and received over 200,000 comments in support. But Zinke closed it, at the coal industry’s behest, with no public input.

This plan isn’t about helping America with energy needs

Zinke may want the public to think he’s helping America’s energy security, but the U.S. is already producing more oil and gas fuel than it consumes. Claiming we need to hand out more of our public lands and waters for energy security is more than disingenuous. Rather, energy companies are just pushing to load up on cheap leases while the getting’s good: nearly 8,000 drilling permits on federal leases aren’t even being currently used.  

Zinke’s agenda favors only fossil fuel energy door—not solar energy. Zinke has gone so far as to suggest that solar power isn’t an appropriate use of public lands. And the issue of climate change has now been removed from the agency’s future plans.

Energy security and savings won’t be found by making our wildlands and our oceans oil fields. It is found in clean energy where more jobs are created, taxpayer dollars are saved, and safer energy is provided for America.

These lands are public and the public should have a voice

The federal government was entrusted to manage these federal lands for the public for current and future generation. Interior’s charge has been to manage lands and waters considering multiple purposes including fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, and recreational.  Bringing focused attention to one purpose—fossil fuel development—goes against not just the public opinion to manage these lands for multiple uses but against the needs of future generations.

The Zinke agenda is not about the public interest.  Many of these recent efforts by Interior are cutting out the public who have an interest in how these lands are managed. Zinke is pushing his agenda through  closed-door meetings with fossil fuel companies while suspending the work of community and science advisory committees. 

Zinke’s agenda moves us backwards. It not only unravels decades of protections for our, public lands, oceans, endangered species and climate, it cheats the American taxpayer with a 19th century energy plan.  

About the Authors

Danielle Droitsch

Director of Fossil Fuel Supply, Land & Wildlife program

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