Week 40: Ryan Zinke Calls for More Drilling (and Lying) in the Gulf

Plus, shadiness in Montana and an insult-slinging EPA.

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Gerald Herbert/AP

No Oil Left Behind

The Interior Department announced this week that in March “all available un-leased areas on the Gulf’s Outer Continental Shelf” will be open for bidding to the offshore oil and gas industry. The newly available territory totals 77 million acres, which is about the size of New Mexico. This would be the largest group of oil and gas leases in U.S. history.

The Interior Department’s counselor for energy policy, Vincent DeVito, says we need these leases because “Americans do not want to be dependent on foreign oil.” I have good news for Mr. DeVito: We’re not dependent on foreign oil. The United States produced 75 percent of the oil we consumed in 2016, in net terms. In recent years, we have reached a nearly five-decade low in our dependence on foreign oil. Of course, we shouldn’t be celebrating oil production, even if it is domestic (because it leads to more climate change), but these leases solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

The Interior Department also assures us that the offshore oil drilling will be “safe and environmentally sound.” You may have heard that one before. In fact, President Obama also fell for the oil industry’s bogus assurances. On April 2, 2010, he told a town hall that “oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills.” Just 18 days later, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank, killing 11 people and spewing more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of 87 days. It was the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Drilling-safety improvements have still not been fully implemented, and yet, the oil industry and its political pals continue to make the outrageous claim that offshore spills won’t happen.

Opening the entire drillable area of the Gulf of Mexico to oil rigs is an invitation to disaster. Of course, since it will take years before the drilling begins, President Trump and Ryan Zinke probably won’t be around to take responsibility when there is an accident. Not that they would.

Something’s Fishy

Puerto Rico’s state-owned utility company has hired Whitefish Energy to restore its electrical grid after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. As a headline, this doesn’t sound so strange. But there are many things about this decision that will raise eyebrows from San Juan to Washington, D.C., to Flathead County, Montana.

Whitefish is a peculiar choice for this job, a massive undertaking that will cost at least $300 million. Puerto Rico’s grid was already crumbling before the hurricane, and the project will require hundreds of people working around the clock. Whitefish has just two full-time employees, and the company is only two years old.

Traditionally, when a utility is in distress, it activates “mutual aid” agreements with utilities in other areas. The other power providers can quickly swoop in to restore service after a storm. “The fact that there are so many utilities with experience in this and a huge track record of helping each other out, it is at least odd why [the utility] would go to Whitefish,” Susan F. Tierney, a former senior official at the U.S. Department of Energy and state regulatory agencies, told the Washington Post. “I’m scratching my head wondering how it all adds up.”

Scratch no more: Whitefish Energy is named after its hometown, Whitefish, Montana, which also happens to be the hometown of U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The company’s chief executive, Andy Techmanski, knows Zinke, and one of Zinke’s sons spent a summer working on one of Techmanski’s construction sites.

At present, both Techmanski and Zinke deny that Zinke played any role in the assigning of the Puerto Rico contract to Whitefish Energy. However, it doesn’t look good that there was no formal bidding process on this enormous contract, which is well beyond anything the company has handled in the past.

Congress has begun to examine the deal, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Congress’s track record of holding the Trump administration accountable is, let’s say, смешанный.

Obstructin’ Liz

The EPA press office used to answer questions about environmental quality and the enforcement of public health standards. Now they just insult people. This week, Inside Climate News described the agency’s worrying, if unsurprising, new communications strategy.

When asked about the EPA’s diminishing regulation of toxic chemicals, spokesperson Liz Bowman accused a New York Times reporter of writing “elitist clickbait.” The agency also accused an Associated Press reporter of having “a history of not letting the facts get in the way of his story” in a highly unusual ad hominem attack from a government agency. (Not to mention, the AP story was accurate.)

One wonders if President Trump himself has coached the agency’s communications staff.

Stop Trump and Pruitt’s escalated anti-environment assault

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onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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