Week 61: Zinke Loves Drilling Anywhere but in His Own State

The Interior secretary lines up drills just outside Bears Ears; Pruitt tries to wipe out decades of research and refuses to explain his soundproof booth.

March 23, 2018

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

Cedar Mesa in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

Bob Wick/BLM

At Least It’s Not in Zinke’s Backyard

The U.S. Department of the Interior auctioned off more than 50,000 acres for oil and gas extraction in southeastern Utah on Tuesday. Some of the plots are close to the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument, which President Obama established and President Trump is trying to un-establish. Other sites targeted for drilling are near Utah’s Hovenweep and Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients national monuments.

Some local officials and the Bureau of Land Management have argued that oil and gas extraction is the region’s only hope for economic development. But here’s another idea: How about using the national monument designation as an economic opportunity? Research shows that localities surrounding national monuments benefit monumentally from tourism and recreation. For example, following the establishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante—another monument that Trump is trying to eliminate—the economies of neighboring communities grew rapidly. Service jobs increased by 42 percent, and both labor and nonlabor income grew by more than 40 percent between 2001 and 2015.

It’s also noteworthy that the Utah auctions come shortly after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke abruptly removed 17,300 acres of land in his home state of Montana from an upcoming lease sale. If Utah had Zinke’s ear, rather than Bears Ears, it wouldn’t have this problem.

Pruitt’s “Secret Science” Scam

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is preparing a plan to restrict the use of research that he misleadingly refers to as “secret science.”

On its face, Pruitt’s plan doesn’t seem that sinister: The EPA would no longer base any decisions on studies that have not made all their data publicly available. “[E]very American citizen across the country deserves to know what’s the data, what’s the methodology that was used to reach that conclusion that was the underpinning of rules that were adopted by this agency,” Pruitt said.

Pruitt’s real motive, however, is not to increase the transparency of EPA science—it’s to wipe out the current climate science record. Climatology, as a field of research, goes back decades. There’s simply no way to go back in time and publish the raw data from studies that were completed, say, in the 1960s. The researchers could be dead, and the raw data may no longer exist. In public health studies, which often rely on medical records of individuals, the data can’t legally be released because the subjects never consented to having the raw data published on the internet. Even where old data are accessible and legally publishable, researchers would have to spend huge amounts of time combing through old files and uploading the relevant information. Career EPA staffers say the cost could easily run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Who’s going to pay for that? The agency’s budget is already strained by Scott Pruitt’s first-class airfare.

As a result, the EPA would no longer base findings on completely sound studies, simply because Scott Pruitt decided to change the rules after the fact. This isn’t a transparency initiative; it’s a pretext to erase the scientific record.

That’s a Lot of Pasta

Embarrassing revelations about Scott Pruitt’s expensive travel habits just keep coming. This week, the EPA turned over documents to Congress revealing an additional $68,000 in first-class airfare and expensive hotel stays, and we also learned that the agency spent $30,000 to send Pruitt’s personal security detail with him on a trip to the Vatican, where Pruitt refused to sign a document endorsing action to stop climate change. That brings the total for the trip to more than $84,000, quite a lot of money for Pruitt to do absolutely nothing.

In fairness to Pruitt, the Vatican is a very dangerous place. I’ve read The Da Vinci Code.

Wanted: Three Industry Hacks to Lie About Air Pollution

The EPA posted openings for four positions on the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, or CASAC. One of the openings came after a member’s term expired and she left the committee, but two others were forced out because of Pruitt’s nonsensical rule that recipients of EPA research grants cannot serve on science advisory boards. Pruitt claims that’s a conflict of interest, but I’m not sure that term means what he thinks it means here. Science advisory board members do not stand to profit, financially or otherwise, from the advice they give to the administrator based on their research. If anything, it makes sense to include such people on science advisory boards because the agency’s technical experts have already determined that they are experts in their fields.

Pruitt will get an opportunity to replace the remaining four members of CASAC at the end of September, which explains why he’s currently refusing to implement existing rules against ground-level ozone. By then, he’ll have had time to pack his science advisory board with industry hacks who’ll give him cover when the sham rules he’s likely to adopt are challenged in court.

At Least We Know the Booth Works

Remember that $25,000, which actually turned out to be $43,000, that Scott Pruitt spent on a soundproof booth so his own employees couldn’t hear his phone calls? Congress is investigating, and a Senate Democrat says Pruitt isn’t cooperating with the investigation.

“I am alarmed that the EPA has failed—for nearly three months—to cooperate with GAO’s requests,” Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico wrote to the EPA, referring to the Government Accountability Office. A spokesperson for the GAO confirmed that the office hasn’t received any response from Pruitt about the soundproof chamber.

Perhaps Administrator Pruitt explained this expenditure at length from the comfort of his soundproof booth, and we didn’t hear it?

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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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