Week 52: Zinke Didn’t Do His Job

The Interior secretary’s negligence on offshore drilling, a mass resignation at the National Parks Service board, and the oil and gas industry’s hunger for even more.

January 19, 2018

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

Don’t Bother Drilling

Last week, the U.S. Department of the Interior made the unprecedented decision to open nearly the entire U.S. coastline to offshore oil drilling. (They then quickly withdrew Florida for political reasons, but still.) There are many, many reasons to oppose oil drilling in the waters around our country, but here’s a really practical one: There’s barely any oil in large swaths of these areas.

A Interior Department report released alongside last week’s leasing plan shows that 90 percent of the coastline around Alaska has an insignificant amount of oil. That’s a big deal, because nearly 60 percent of the coastal acreage that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposes to open to drilling is off of the jagged Alaska coastline.

In one sense, this is good news: If there’s no oil, drilling companies might think twice about destroying these coastal areas, even if Zinke really, really wants them to. More significant, however, is the way it exposes how little thought he gave to the five-year offshore drilling plan before opening our fragile coasts to oil production.

Federal law requires the Interior Department to consider eight balancing factors before opening a segment of coastline to drilling. The very first factor is the “geographical, geological, and ecological characteristics” of the area. If the geology of a region indicates that there’s an insignificant amount of oil, there’s no way that opening it for drilling could offset the potential ecological impacts. That should be obvious after three seconds of thought. If only Zinke could prioritize the environment for three consecutive seconds.

Stop the Trump administration's offshore drilling assault

Happy Trails, Ryan

Speaking of Ryan Zinke’s negligence, nearly all the members of a board tasked with advising the National Parks Service resigned in protest on Monday night, because, they said, Zinke wouldn’t even meet with them. Established in 1935, the board includes scientists, former elected officials, and members of the public and is supposed to help designate historic and national landmarks, among other duties.

The outgoing chairman, former Alaska governor Tony Knowles, wrote that the board has “stood by waiting for the chance to meet and continue the partnership,” only to be “ignored.”

The mass resignation is par for the Trump course, as the administration steadily chases expertise and experience out of the government. According to the Washington Post, many federal advisory committees have been decimated or are unable to meet because of the administration’s failure to renew their charters.

In the case of the National Parks Service board, two of the sticking points were apparently the board’s desire to ready our parks for climate change and to increase youth attendance. Zinke has completely ignored the first problem, and he responded to the second by proposing to dramatically increase park fees—a surefire way to drive the dwindling number of young visitors down even further.

Haven’t We Heard Enough Already?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency held a roundtable discussion on Tuesday with representatives of the oil and gas industry who wanted to complain about the allegedly too-strict enforcement of regulations. This isn’t a big story, but the idea that the oil and gas industry needs another meeting to complain to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is silly. According to the New York Times, “Since taking office in February, Mr. Trump’s EPA chief has held back-to-back meetings, briefing sessions and speaking engagements almost daily with top corporate executives and lobbyists from all the major economic sectors that he regulates—and almost no meetings with environmental groups or consumer or public health advocates.”

Pruitt himself is a one-man cheerleading squad for lax regulation. In his first nine months, he launched one-third fewer cases against polluters than either the Bush or Obama administrations during the same period. He has also collected substantially less in fines. Pruitt has complained bitterly about “unnecessary EPA regulations” and “federal overreach.”

Of course, Tuesday’s roundtable makes perfect sense in the context of Scott Pruitt, an EPA administrator who listens only to people who already agree with him and explicitly refuses to acknowledge that the agency’s mission is to protect the environment.

Pigskin Pals

Last week, news emerged that Ryan Zinke would require grant applications to undergo a political screening process at the Department of Interior. A department employee named Steve Howke was set to ensure that no one looking for money to study climate change resilience, for example, would ever get funding from the Trump administration.

Head-scratching followed the naming of Howke. In a town where everybody knows everybody, nobody had the faintest idea who Steve Howke was. He apparently has made his career working for credit unions—not exactly the kind of work that qualifies a candidate to review scientific grant applications, even if for political reasons. But this week everything became clear. According to the Western Values Project, a Montana-based conservation group, Howke was Zinke’s high school football teammate. I guess he has a history of blocking for Zinke.

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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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