Not in Their Wildest Dreams
The Trump administration is granting energy industry wishes at a breakneck pace
Since taking office, the Trump administration has moved aggressively to roll back existing common sense energy policies and enact an agenda written by the oil and gas industry. A new analysis finds the Trump administration and their allies in Congress have acted on at least 22 policy changes supported by energy companies and associations as of December 2017. These include efforts to remove safeguards on drilling, shut out the public from decision making, and increase drilling inside of America’s parks and wildlife refuges.
The energy industry has long been a major player in our political system. From funding candidates and lobbying to running advertisements and media campaigns, oil, gas, and coal companies have sought to eliminate some energy-related policies and advance others, often with mixed success. Now, the Trump administration has rewarded those efforts by stocking key positions in the Department of the Interior with industry players and rolling back a raft of energy policies.
The degree to which President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have aggressively pushed to eliminate commonsense regulations and expand oil, gas, and coal development has shocked even those in the industry. As the president of the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas trade association, recently said, “Not in our wildest dreams, never did we expect to get everything.”
The Wish List
The Center for Western Priorities identified 24 policy changes within the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior favored by oil, gas, and coal industry interests, drawing from regulatory comments, lawsuits, letters, and statements. These policy recommendations were then compared to actions taken by the Department of the Interior since President Trump took office, assessing whether the supported action was complete, in progress, identified for administrative or Congressional action, or not started. See the Appendix for a summary of each policy, as well as sources for industry recommendations and administrative actions.
Carrying out energy industry priorities
From the administration’s first 100 days until now, President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have acted with speed to dismantle decades of energy policies that protect our natural heritage and public health. In October, Secretary Zinke released a so-called “Energy Burdens Report,” essentially a hit list of energy policies the agency will seek to eliminate or revise. It’s a clear roadmap that favors oil, gas, and coal companies at the expense of public lands and taxpayer returns.
While government actions often take time, the Trump administration has already completed several energy industry priorities. Less than one month after taking office, Secretary Zinke announced his department would kill a rule designed to ensure taxpayers receive a fair share from coal, oil, and gas extracted from public lands. This “Valuation Rule” closed a massive loophole that allowed companies to sell coal to self-owned subsidiaries at below-market rates, cheating taxpayers out of millions in royalties. The same week, President Trump signed a Congressional Review Act resolution eliminating the Bureau of Land Management’s “Planning 2.0” rule that sought to increase local input and resolve conflicts between local businesses, such as outdoor recreation companies, and energy development when planning where to offer oil and gas leases.
In April, President Trump directed Secretary Zinke to review national monuments designated since 1996, targeting them for elimination or significant reductions. On December 4, following Secretary Zinke’s recommendation, President Trump issued two proclamations eliminating more than 2 million acres from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah. These unprecedented and likely illegal cuts open known coal and uranium deposits for new mining, endangering thousands of Native American cultural sites and world-class fossil beds.
Many other industry requests are currently in progress. The Interior Department has suspended implementation of, and intends to eliminate entirely, the BLM’s methane waste rule, which requires oil and gas operators to identify and plug natural gas leaks from drilling sites on public lands. The BLM has also proposed eliminating a rule that increases the safety and transparency of hydraulic fracturing on public lands.
Further, Secretary Zinke has announced his intent to eliminate and revise plans to conserve sage-grouse populations across the West. These plans, the result of years of bipartisan negotiations by Western governors, ranchers, and conservationists were seen as a resounding success to save an imperiled species while allowing energy development to continue.
Identified for administrative action
The Trump administration has identified several policies for the Interior Department to eliminate or revise. In an executive order, President Trump ordered Secretary Zinke to examine, and possibly eliminate, updates to safety and enforcement rules governing drilling within national parks and national wildlife refuges. In its “Energy Burdens Report,” the Agriculture Department recommended working with the Interior Department to roll back a 20-year moratorium on new uranium mining leases near the Grand Canyon.
Identified for congressional action
While President Trump and Secretary Zinke have been able to complete many actions on the oil and gas industry’s list, they lack the authority to complete some of them, requiring action from Congress. Utah Representative Rob Bishop has introduced a bill to gut the Antiquities Act, preventing future designations of national monuments, a key ask of the Western Energy Alliance. Additionally, members of the House Natural Resources Committee have pushed forward with legislation that would delegate oil and gas permitting authorities to states and eliminate the need for certain environmental reviews.
Stocking the Interior Department with energy interests
Secretary Zinke — who has benefited from oil, gas, and coal industry interests funding his political rise — has surrounded himself at the Interior Department with a staff that has deep ties into the energy and mineral extraction industries.
An analysis of 76 political staffers who have worked at the Interior Department since the beginning of the Trump administration finds at least 34 — nearly 50 percent of all political appointees — have direct ties to oil, gas, coal, or other extractive industry interests.* This includes employees who have worked for extractive industries, lobbied on their behalf, legally represented extractive industries, taken in campaign contributions from them, or worked at a think tank or organization that receives significant funding from oil and gas companies.
As an example, Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt — the number two at Interior — has a long career as a lobbyist and lawyer representing oil, gas, and mining companies. Kathy Benedetto, a senior advisor to the Bureau of Land Management, worked in the mining and energy industry for two decades. Heather Swift, the Interior press secretary, has worked for multiple public affairs and lobbying companies representing oil, gas, and coal interests. Daniel Jorjani, the principal deputy solicitor, has held multiple jobs with the Koch brothers, prominent oil and gas billionaires. And the list goes on and on.
These dozens of employees, groomed over the years to represent extractive industry interests, are now carrying out the industry’s agenda from inside the government.
Meeting extensively with energy interests
Since his swearing in as Interior Secretary in March 2017, Ryan Zinke and his staff have met extensively with energy interests. Copies of Zinke’s calendar for his first two months in office released by the agency show meetings with executives from nearly two dozen oil and gas organizations, including the American Petroleum Institute, Western Energy Alliance, ExxonMobil, BP America, and Chevron.
Secretary Zinke has looked to curry favor with oil and gas companies by speaking regularly to industry audiences. Less than one month into the job, Zinke spoke to the American Petroleum Institute’s Board of Directors at the Trump Hotel in Washington, DC. On trips outside the beltway, Secretary Zinke has spoken to the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston and the Alaska Oil and Gas Association in Anchorage. Combined, the extensive meetings with industry executives and speeches to industry audience indicate exactly who Secretary Zinke is listening to in carrying out his agenda at the Interior Department.
In the nine months since President Trump took office, the Department of the Interior has transformed from an agency balancing multiple uses on our public lands — leasing some lands for development while conserving others for future generations — to a rubber stamp for the oil, gas, and coal industries.
To date, nearly all of the policy recommendations identified by energy interests have been acted on in some form. Unfortunately, the road forward for the Interior Department is clear. Under the Zinke Doctrine, the agency will cater to energy companies at all costs at the expense of our parks and public lands.