Since President Trump took office, the Interior Department has cozied up to big corporate oil and natural gas interests—Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke shrunk several national monuments to make room for industry and ended an Obama-era moratorium on coal-mining leases on public land. In January, he announced that Interior will expand offshore drilling in U.S. coastal waters.
Based on my experience at the department, these moves will have serious consequences.
I was the top climate policy official at Interior until June, when I was reassigned to an office that, ironically, collects royalty checks from fossil fuel companies operating on federal lands—a job that hardly matched my background and expertise. Apparently, my work was coming between Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his industry friends. My work represented an inconvenient narrative for Zinke and his priorities, that fossil fuels are threatening American health and safety.
Concerned that my reassignment would threaten indigenous Alaskans facing the effects of climate change, the focus of my work, I refused to let the matter slide and filed a whistleblower claim. When it became clear that Zinke was putting the fossil fuel industry first and Americans last, I left the federal government last October with a resignation letter that blast Zinke for his failure to respect the agency’s mission.
Zinke has strenuously advocated for opening long-protected public lands and waters to oil and gas development. When Zinke recommended that Trump dramatically shrink the Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante national monuments in Utah, and open up those lands to development, he ignored the pleas of Native Americans, outdoor enthusiasts, and 98 percent of the Americans who submitted comments. And last fall, Interior abruptly withdrew from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which focuses on exposing corruption globally in the oil, gas, and mineral extraction industries. It was yet another wet kiss for Zinke’s oil and gas industry pals.
The rationale for these moves is what the Trump Administration calls “energy dominance”—a nebulous, chest-thumping mantra invoked the way some government officials have used “national security” to hush critics and justify a raft of morally bankrupt policies. (The term “energy dominance” is so pervasive among Interior leaders now it has even become the entry passcode for official Department press conference calls.)
Interior’s hasty push to drill everywhere will dramatically worsen the dangers of global warming. Federal lands managed by Interior already account for 42 percent of all coal, 22 percent of all crude oil and 15 percent of all natural gas produced in the United States, and they generate about one-fifth of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Since the United States produces about 15 percent of global emissions, that means the Interior Department alone is responsible for 3 percent of annual greenhouse gases worldwide.
Meanwhile, thanks to Zinke’s publicly stated zeal to reduce constraints on methane release, we can expect increased pollution from the approximately 100,000 active oil and gas wells on Interior-managed public lands. That will trigger dangerous rises in respiratory and other health complications nationwide and undermine efforts to slow climate change. In New Mexico alone, venting and flaring of methane on federal lands wastes over $100 million of taxpayer-owned natural gas each year, gas that could provide energy for many thousands of households without drilling another hole.
Ironically, the energy industry isn’t even asking for all these federal handouts. In 2016, companies were sitting on nearly 8,000 approved but unused drilling permits. Industry enthusiasm is also noticeably tepid about the new provision that Senate Republicans smuggled into tax reform legislation last fall that lifts the ban on development in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
As a senior career official in a federal agency, I always understood and accepted that every administration has the prerogative to pursue its own policies, even those I don’t agree with. Yes, elections have consequences.
But from what I saw at the Interior Department, we’re dealing with something completely different now. The agency is abdicating its own mission, spoiling some of America’s most precious natural treasures, and aggravating the biggest threat to our existence—climate change.
This cannot end well. Ryan Zinke has proven unwilling to accept the role of chief steward of our national legacy of lands and waters. Unless he steps up to the challenge, the risks to American health and safety will escalate, from the Arctic to Puerto Rico, and the lands and waters we leave to our children and grandchildren will be unrecognizable.