Zinke leaves unfinished business at the Interior Department

The questionable legality of the Trump administration’s aggressive deregulatory and development-friendly policies could end up being its undoing.

 

On the second day of 2019, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tweeted out his resignation letter to President Donald Trump. After less than two years in office, he claimed to have “restored public lands ‘for the benefit & enjoyment of the people,’ improved public access & shall never be held hostage again for our energy needs.”

That appears to be Zinke’s view of the legacy his abbreviated tenure will leave on the Interior Department’s more than 500 million acres of land and roughly 70,000 employees. Critics might interpret his garbled syntax as a confession: that he turned over public land to industry — pushing oil and gas leases in sensitive habitat, rescinding environmental protections and shrinking national monuments. But what, really, did Zinke accomplish?

Ryan Zinke wore many hats as Interior Department Secretary, effective bureaucrat wasn't one of them.
Department of the Interior

The answer: Probably not much. The methane Zinke allowed gas drillers to flare can’t be unburnt, the oil and gas leases he sold are probably good for at least 10 years, and the institutional knowledge of departed agency workers will be difficult to restore. Still, the flippant way Zinke executed his many rollbacks and policy changes leaves them vulnerable to be overturned, either by the next administration, Congress or the courts.

“The cumulative landscape impact is significant,” said Brett Hartl, the government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “(But) I am optimistic that almost everything they’ve done can be undone. We can win in court because most of the things they are doing violate the laws they are addressing.”

Zinke — a Navy veteran, former oil pipeline functionary and Montana congressman — was not coy about his determination to achieve something he called “energy dominance.” Nor was he shy about favoring industry over all other public-lands users. Following the lead and executive orders of President Donald Trump, Zinke cut environmental regulations, shrank Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, and censored climate science while pushing out agency scientists and staff. By reducing fracking safeguards, slashing methane waste regulations and cutting protections for migratory birds, Zinke’s Interior Department has made it easier to develop oil and gas on public lands.

Yet only a handful of rules — which create policies that require a lengthy and public process to undo — have been finalized in the last two years. Many of the actions taken by the administration have been done through secretarial orders, internal memos and staffing decisions, many of which can be reversed on day one of a new administration.

For example, policies that have lead to the censoring of climate science could be immediately discarded. New leadership at Interior could also terminate every politically appointed agency head and staffer. For instance, Zinke’s childhood friend Steve Howke, a former credit union executive with no Interior Department experience, would no longer be in charge of reviewing the department’s grant applications.

From a staffing standpoint, Zinke’s legacy will come less from temporary political appointees than from the loss of rank-and-file workers. The departures of career staffers, who left after questionable reassignments, interference in climate research, and policies that incentivized early retirements, will make it harder to rebuild a workforce that is shrinking despite increased visitation on public lands. 

The legal actions of the Trump administration’s Interior Department are also vulnerable in federal courts. “We see a pattern of attempts to suspend compliance with agency rules” that doesn’t adhere to the Administrative Procedures Act, said Hana Vizcarra, the staff attorney for Harvard Law’s Environmental and Energy Law Program.

As Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., takes the lead oversight role as the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Trump’s opponents could gain more leverage. “Information from oversight in the house could give ammunition to litigants or spur interest in further lawsuits,” Vizcarra said. If, for example, the committee unveiled new information that showed rules were made at the request of regulated industries, “it could impact what a court considers reasonable or arbitrary,” and undermine the agency’s ability to defend its actions, she said.

In the end, Zinke will probably be remembered more for his hat collection, bluster, multiple scandals and ethics investigations and vacations taken on the taxpayer dime than for any policies he implemented, good or bad. One thing is certain, though: The drive for “energy dominance” at the expense of the environment will endure for as long as Trump remains president, particularly under the leadership of now acting-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who is generally seen to be more competent than Zinke.

“In some sense, Ryan Zinke really was Trump’s mini-me in terms of flailing around and fumbling very loudly, but really not having a clear policy direction other than deregulation and handing over federal authority to manage public lands,” said Erik Molvar, the executive director of Western Watersheds, a conservation group that opposes grazing and energy development on public land. “Now, we could be turning over the helm to cold-blooded professionals who are industry lobbyists that really know how to get things done.”

Carl Segerstrom is a contributing editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, Washington.  Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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