Secretary Zinke is out over his skis

After failing to consult with governors or lawyers, the Interior Secretary has to withdraw plans yet again

A methane flare in Colorado | EcoFlight

Last week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was forced to backtrack, having gone too far and too fast on three proposals that were overly ambitious and unpopular.

Is Secretary Zinke getting ahead of himself? The Interior Department is tasked with balancing energy development and conservation of America’s natural heritage — a job that requires diligence and painstaking processes. However, Secretary Zinke has repeatedly attempted to implement unprecedented plans without consultation from lawyers, governors, or Congress, then quickly reversed after intense push back. As Representative Raul Grijalva put it, “He’s in over his head.”

The lack of consultation during Secretary Zinke’s push to roll back common sense energy policies is forcing him to walk back his schemes.

Offshore Drilling

The Interior Department is obligated by law to consult with governors and congressional delegations as a part of a deliberative process before allowing drilling. In an unprecedented move, Secretary Zinke announced plans to open up nearly the entire U.S. coast to offshore oil and gas drilling in a series of giant lease sales. A few days later, the Secretary tweeted out a photo of himself and Florida Governor Rick Scott, saying he would exempt Florida from the offshore drilling plan, claiming Florida’s coasts were “unique and heavily reliant on tourism.”

Almost immediately, a bipartisan chorus of 15 governors from nearly all the coastal states opposed the plan and called for their states to also be exempt from drilling. A dozen attorneys general from coastal states signed a letter to Secretary Zinke urging him to cancel the entire drilling proposal, threatening to “unquestionably” sue if he moved forward. On top of that, Axios reported that Secretary Zinke’s actions took the White House by surprise, paving the way for lawsuits.

To clean up the mess he made, Secretary Zinke decided that he would meet with every coastal governor to discuss the status of their state. Last week, the Secretary met with California Governor Jerry Brown “regarding the state’s strong opposition to the federal government’s decision to expand oil and gas drilling off of California’s coast.” The series of events led the Washington Post editorial board to ask the question: Is Ryan Zinke cynical or incompetent?

Methane Waste Rule

A provision in President Trump’s “energy dominance” executive order signed in March 2017 directed Secretary Zinke to review and possibly eliminate the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) methane waste rule — a rule designed to reduce natural gas leaking, flaring, and venting from oil and gas operations on public lands. Scrapping the rule was on the wish list of the industry.

Natural gas well, Bureau of Land Management

Although Congress voted against killing the methane waste rule via Congressional Review Act in May 2017, Secretary Zinke moved to cripple the rule from inside the agency by delaying the date by which the industry had to comply. In October, a federal judge ruled against the delay. “If I were in this administration, this should be seen as a warning sign,” said Jonathan Adler, the director of the Center for Business Law & Regulation at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

In August, Secretary Zinke temporarily suspended the methane waste rule until 2019. Last week, a federal court shot down this attempt by Secretary Zinke to undercut methane waste prevention. The judge ruled that Secretary Zinke’s suspension was “baseless” and “untethered to evidence.”

Earlier this month, Secretary Zinke announced that the BLM will go beyond delaying the rule and effectively eliminate the rule, suggesting that the industry will benefit more from being able to pollute than the public would be hurt by the pollution. It remains to be seen whether this latest attempt to eviscerate the methane waste rule will be more successful than his previous ones.

Interior Reorganization

Ever since Ryan Zinke became Interior Secretary, he has championed a plan to overhaul the Interior Department. Secretary Zinke’s rationale: “push your generals where the fight is.”

In January, E&E News reported that Secretary Zinke’s vision for reorganizing the structure of the Interior Department was to redraw management regions based on watersheds and ecosystems (management regions are currently based on state lines). Zinke called it the greatest reorganization in the history of the Interior Department. The proposed regions would have split states into multiple sections, a move criticized as a ploy to favor the oil and gas industry. States like Colorado, previously in one region, would be cut into three. Senator Martin Heinrich said the proposal looked “more like a dismantling than a reorganization.”

Associated Press

These major changes to public land management decisions did not sit well with Western governors. A bipartisan group of 19 governors sent a scathing letter to Secretary Zinke for not consulting with them. “Western governors expect to be treated as the chief executives of a sovereign level of government, not as stakeholders,” said Jim Ogsbury, Western Governors’ Association Executive Director.

In response to the strong push back, Secretary Zinke told the Associated Press he would change the regional boundaries to more closely follow state line boundaries, deviating from his initial failed proposal, and is now meeting with governors to discuss the reorganization plans. The flop still leaves Westerners in the dark and calls into question Secretary Zinke’s true motivations for reorganizing the department.

Secretary Zinke’s ill-considered affinity for acting alone, without consulting elected officials and stakeholders, has produced a string of stinging setbacks and keeps the public in the dark about management decisions.