New Head of Interior Department May Stop Progress on Climate and Natural Resource Protections

Scandal-plagued Ryan Zinke, who left his post as U.S. Secretary of the Interior, was let go because he is facing several ethics investigations over his business dealings, travel and policy decisions. The New York Times has found that he is the target of at least 15 investigations, including one of a Montana real estate deal that may have violated federal conflict of interest laws.

Although a corruption scandal was what caused Ryan Zinke to resign from the Department of Interior, we can’t forget all he’s done to stop progress in combating climate change and protecting natural resources.

Despite the controversy that roiled his tenure, Zinke managed to roll back federal lands protections in pursuit of the Trump agenda to encourage energy consumption. His proposed 2019 budget promoted increased drilling and extraction and proposed gutting funding for land acquisition and conservation programs. That includes cutting the 1964 Water Conservation Fund by 95% and zeroing out a program that provides funding to states for voluntary species and habitat conservation projects. All of these make public lands more vulnerable to development and threaten the biodiversity that is so key to fighting climate change.

Zinke overturned an Obama-era moratorium on new coal leases on federal land and proposed opening nearly all U.S. waters to offshore drilling. Under his leadership, the Interior Department rescinded a hydraulic fracturing rule that would have set new standards for well construction and chemical disclosure for fracked wells on public lands.

His most lasting legacy will be his unprecedented shrinking of national monuments by about 12 million acres. Unsurprisingly, his targets were on the wish-lists of coal and oil developers. Two prime examples: the Bears Ears National Monument, which is set to shrink 85%, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which will shrink by half. Bears Ears and Escalante exemplify the way the Department of Interior under Zinke opened up public lands to private companies while drastically rolling back its environmental responsibilities.

Scaling back public lands opens them up to mineral, oil and gas extraction. Thoughtful stewardship of our nation’s natural beauty protects wildlife, rare plants and vulnerable terrain.

Opening lands to development without including policies that protect the environment is the antithesis of Interior’s mandate.

Acting Secretary David Bernhardt may continue Zinke’s anti-environmental legacy. He is seen as the behind-the-scenes architect of Zinke’s policies. He was reportedly the brain behind the Trump administration’s decision last month to open nine million acres to drilling and mining by stripping away protections for the sage grouse, an imperiled ground-nesting bird that oil companies have felt blocked their access to some of the richest deposits in the American West.

Many environmentalists fear he will be far more effective in executing the Trump administration’s policies than Zinke, whose effectiveness was hobbled by his continuing ethics violations. Bernhardt’s experience in Washington means he will be less likely to make such missteps.

Bernhardt was a fossil fuel and water industry lobbyist before he joined the Trump administration and many of his old clients are successfully lobbying the government now. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management approved one of his previous client’s pipeline to pump groundwater out of the Mojave desert, in a move that prompted lawsuits from environmentalists.

Bernhardt was also involved in the Department’s rescinding of regulations on methane emissions and policy of encouraging oil drilling.

It will take a lot of work to undo these environmental protection rollbacks. NYLCV will continue to advocate for federal regulations and legislation that fight climate change and defend natural resources.