Secretary Zinke’s Real Scandals

Zinke's decisions will impose huge and lasting damage to federal lands, public treasuries, and local communities

By Dan Bucks

The national media risks getting the story of Ryan Zinke’s record as Interior Secretary wrong.

In a recent article headlined “Stinky Zinke,” the Huffington Post describes a slimy trail of scandal Zinke has blazed through his office, prompting 11 investigations of his conduct. The sweetheart Halliburton land deal, secret meetings, expensive trips on charter planes and helicopters, and several cases of mixing partisan politics with Interior business – all these and more are on the list of Zinke’s alleged abuses, wasteful spending, and conflicts of interest.

While clever headlines and charges of personal misconduct attract public attention, they are less important than Zinke’s decisions to favor oil, gas, coal and mineral extraction over other multiple uses of federal land – decisions that will impose huge and lasting damage to federal lands, public treasuries, and local communities.

Zinke’s most recent decision may be the most astounding. He has decided that energy companies that despoil federal lands won’t always have to pay a price for damages they cause. He even labeled the previous, long-standing policy of requiring payments for harming the land “un-American.”

In the America I know tenants have to pay owners for damages to property they occupied. Parents teach their children to clean up after themselves or otherwise take responsibility for problems they cause. However, in Zinke’s twisted view, big energy corporations are exempt from the ordinary rules of life requiring the rest of us to pay for any harm we cause. Worse yet, Zinke’s “gift of irresponsibility” to energy companies can cost society huge sums over time and encourage corporations to ravage public lands even more.

This decision continues Zinke’s pattern of using federal lands to create a “triple threat” to the public interest:

• Granting enormous financial benefits to energy and mining companies at the expense of U.S. taxpayers, states, tribes and communities,

• Damaging the lands, water and air and accelerating climate change for generations, and

• Blocking or limiting the use of federal lands for conservation, recreational, historical, and sustainable economic purposes.

To make matters worse, Zinke’s actions often cut the public out of the decision-making for the management of public lands.

Zinke repealed rules requiring companies to reduce natural gas waste and guarantee royalty payments of gas emissions. Interior admits this decision will reduce royalties paid by gas corporations by tens of millions over the next decade. Other experts gauge the lost royalty revenue at hundreds of millions of dollars. Waste methane contributes to asthma, respiratory infections, cancer and neurological damage. It is more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in causing climate change. Favors for natural gas production may discourage other beneficial uses of public lands.

He also repealed rules closing loopholes that allow oil, gas and coal corporations to underpay federal royalties. Again, the estimates of lost revenue range from $75 million (Interior’s own number) to hundreds of millions of dollars annually – and billions over the next decade. Subsidizing fossil fuels is part of the Trump/Zinke “energy dominance” strategy that benefits corporate allies, but prolongs society’s dependence on fossils fuels to the detriment of the environment and other uses of public lands.

Zinke repealed a rule that would have required greater safety in well fracking operations and transparency in reporting the chemicals used in those wells to help evaluate their public health impacts. This action reduces industry costs nearly $300 million over the next decade at the expense of increasing public health and safety risks – and aims again at expanding fossil fuel production on public lands.

He recommended shrinking national monuments and is surrounding several with ill-advised leases for oil, gas, and uranium – often at bargain basement prices. “Ring-fencing” monuments with mineral extraction exposes them to increased environmental risks and denies them a buffer of more compatible ranching and conservation uses of adjacent lands.

Zinke’s actions recklessly grant gifts to energy and mining companies; damage public lands and reduce their recreational and conservation uses; threaten public health; deny states, tribes and local communities necessary revenues, and needlessly accelerate climate change. The real scandal is this administration’s lack of proper stewardship of public lands that should be available for the enjoyment of generations to come.

Dan Bucks is the former Montana director of revenue.