Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke landed in Alaska last year for a trip that would foreshadow the rest of his public career.
About three months after winning one of the most comfortable confirmation votes of President Trump’s Cabinet, Zinke arrived at an oil and gas conference in Alaska with a delegation of Senate Republicans and one red-state Democrat. He laid his hand on a pipeline and vowed to fill it with oil.
He met with Alaska Native tribes living on the front lines of climate change but barely acknowledged how warming is upending life in the 49th state. He flew on a chartered plane and brought his wife on official business—drawing the attention of Interior’s inspector general and feeding the ethical cloud that eventually drove him from the administration.
“After 30 years of public service, I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations,” Zinke said in a statement Saturday. His last day in office is Jan. 2.
Zinke has shadowed Trump in policy and style since the beginning—delighting Western Republicans and aggrieving conservationists who gave his nomination the benefit of the doubt. He offered industry a helping hand. He counterpunched critics. And he belittled investigations into his conduct, something that continued even in his farewell statement.
“It is better for the President and Interior to focus on accomplishments than fictitious allegations,” Zinke said.
Those accomplishments have put the United States on track to worsen global warming and crimp the government’s ability to prepare for it. Here’s how.
About one-quarter of annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions originated from public lands before Zinke galloped into Interior.
He has since restarted coal leasing, prepared to open new drilling areas in Alaska and off the coasts, ordered faster permitting approval and pushed out energy leases at breakneck speed.
He’s also rolling back the Obama administration’s rule on capturing oil and gas drillers’ wasted methane, a greenhouse gas several times more potent than carbon dioxide.
On the infrastructure side, he has given a green light to build transmission lines and pipelines across public lands.
Those actions have helped goose fossil fuel production—likely driving up emissions, too, as increased supply helps keep energy prices down (Climatewire Dec. 13).
Zinke defended that fossil fuel expansion by saying U.S. drilling and mining is more environmentally sound than foreign operations. The former Navy SEAL also said boosting American energy production would save lives by making the United States less likely to go to war over oil.
Industry groups have applauded Zinke for advancing their main priorities, and his replacement will likely continue those policies.
But others might fizzle without him. For instance, it’s not clear if anyone will follow through on Zinke’s proposal for decommissioned military bases to serve as coal export terminals.
Overall, Zinke has followed the administration’s promise to craft coal-friendly policies. But the combined weight of market forces and his so-called energy dominance agenda—which has also boosted coal’s rival energy sources—have proved difficult to surmount.
Renewables have also seen some wins, with Zinke’s department approving a massive solar project on public lands in California and overseeing big offshore wind auctions.
Coal leases have dropped during Zinke’s tenure; his sweeteners to industry weren’t enough to lift demand in 2017 Greenwire, April 2).
Zinke has also struggled to prop up the Navajo Generating Station, one of the country’s largest coal-fired plants and a major emitter in Arizona. It’s slated to be shuttered next year unless a buyer emerges (Climatewire, Aug. 15).
Wildlife and landscapes
Zinke controlled how one-fifth of the country prepared—or didn’t—for climate change.
His recommendation to shrink two national monuments in Utah removed protections for hundreds of thousands of acres. Pending court challenges, that action could fragment habitats at a time when species in desert ecosystems are shifting their ranges northward and to higher altitudes.
The safety valve to protect natural richness in a warming world, the Endangered Species Act, would become less powerful and more responsive to economic costs under a proposal proffered during Zinke’s tenure.
Birds, among the most vulnerable creatures to climate change, are losing protections against energy interests under a pair of Zinke decisions.
Sage grouse in most Western states would cede habitat to oil, gas and other development under a reworking of the Obama administration’s conservation plan. And energy companies would have more leeway to kill migratory birds, which are especially sensitive to cycles disrupted by climate change, so long as those deaths were unintentional (E&E News PM, Dec. 22, 2017).
In official appearances and media interviews, Zinke has talked about watching the ice recede in Montana’s Glacier National Park. But during his tenure, Interior erased its handbook’s chapter on climate change Greenwire, Jan. 5).
Zinke also flew a National Park Service superintendent to headquarters to berate him for his park’s climate change tweets, according to The Hill.
And California’s deadly wildfires prompted Zinke to advocate “active management” of forests and blame “environmental terrorist groups” for slowing logging, even as he dismissed global warming’s role in the fires (Climatewire, Aug. 17).
Zinke, who used to call himself a geologist before CNN reported he’d never worked as one, has clashed with his department’s scientists over energy and climate research.
He insisted on reviewing scientific findings before publication, leading to the departure of two top U.S. Geological Survey researchers who protested what they considered a breach of scientific integrity.
Zinke told Congress in March that he had the right to review and question findings but had “never changed a comma.”
Shortly after, though, Reveal published drafts of a sea-level-rise study that the National Park Service had edited to remove references to human influence on climate, then sat on for months. The study’s lead author said she knew other researchers who felt pressure to avoid topics that might contradict the Trump administration’s policies (Climatewire, May 21).
Zinke said the study had never even made it to headquarters and urged an investigation into how reporters had obtained it (Climatewire, April 12).
Critics said the episode illustrates the censorious atmosphere that has chilled science across the department, with and without explicit directions (Climatewire, May 15).
Zinke’s high school football teammate was installed to screen grant applications (Greenwire, Jan. 11). Interior began limiting government scientists from attending conferences and identifying how their research relates to Zinke’s priorities according to The Washington Post.
A few weeks ago, Zinke said USGS had concerns about this year’s National Climate Assessment, even though the agency played a central role in drafting it (Climatewire, Nov. 28).
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.