Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who now faces an unprecedented number of investigations, went on a mini-media tour in his home state of Montana on Wednesday. Even though Zinke faced no hard questions about his ethical lapses, the secretary managed to unleash a stunning number of misleading statements and outright falsehoods that went unchallenged by his interviewers. Here are the biggest whoppers:
On payments to Western counties
Claim: “Today actually, we’re announcing the PILT grants. It’s funded in the president’s budget, it’s funded as Congress passes the amount, but because we’re the Trump administration, we’re announcing today, but it was in the bank yesterday, so I’m here talking to the counties…”
Reality: President Trump’s 2019 budget tried to cut Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT), which compensates rural counties with high percentages of non-taxable public lands, by $68 million. Zinke and his deputy secretary, David Bernhardt, took credit for the increases in PILT payments that Congress passed over the president’s objections, ignoring the fact that if Zinke had gotten his way, he would have been signing much smaller checks for counties this year.
Claim: “But when one side refuses to negotiate in good faith… you look at Interior today, there’s 17 Senate-confirmed positions. To date, over 500 days in, I still don’t have a director of the Park Service, a director of the BLM, a director of Fish and Wildlife. I just got through the director of the U.S. Geological Service [sic], he’s an astronaut. He has a Ph.D. in earth sciences, he has a top secret security clearance. Over 500 days, arguably the most qualified director of the U.S. Geological Service [sic] in its history. (Wow.) Wow. That’s how rough Washington, DC is at the moment.”
Reality: Zinke is attempting to blame Senate Democrats for not approving his nominees for director-level positions. But it’s Zinke himself, along with President Trump, who have failed to nominate anyone for the three jobs he mentions specifically. There’s no way for senators to negotiate, in good faith or bad, since there is literally no one to negotiate over.
As for the director of the USGS, James Reilly is a former astronaut. But his confirmation did not take over 500 days, as Zinke suggests. The White House announced Reilly’s pending nomination on January 26, 2018, and formally nominated him on February 15th. The Senate held a committee hearing on March 6th, and he was confirmed by the full Senate on April 9th. Reilly was confirmed in just 53 days, not 500. No committee members opposed his nomination, and he was confirmed on a voice vote.
Claim: “You just look at the regulations alone. When [President Trump] came in and said for every regulation you put in, I want you to take out two. He’s taken out 22! So even that has surpassed his expectation.”
Reality: PolitiFact rated this claim “Mostly False” last February. The 22-to-1 ratio compares apples to oranges, counting only new regulations that were deemed “economically significant,” while including all deregulatory actions, even if they didn’t have an economic impact.
On “clean coal”
Claim: “It’s also better to ship American clean coal. Cleaner coal than what China is currently using. Or South Korea. Montana/Wyoming coal is much much better in terms of grade, sulfide, across the board. So it’s better if you’re an environmentalist to burn cleaner grade coal.”
Reality: Clean coal does not exist. Full stop.
Additionally, China is currently stopping or slowing work on 151 coal plants. Within two years, every remaining coal plant in China will be more efficient than every coal plant in the United States.
On cleaning up after yourself
Claim: “If you mine, the Treasure State, then you have to have a reclamation plan, that at the end of it, it should be seamless. Be a Boy Scout, leave your campsite as good or better condition as you found it…. So you can do it right, you just have to make sure there’s a bond, reclamation plans approved, and the stakeholders have a say in it. But you can do things right.”
Reality: Zinke’s department just gave coal company Farrell-Cooper a free pass even though it didn’t clean up after itself, leaving behind a trail of angry property owners in Oklahoma. One of them told The Daily Beast, “My whole property is destroyed. I used to have flat grassland. Now I’ve got a mountain so steep you can’t even drive around to keep brush off, and a ditch so deep if a cow fell in you couldn’t get them out of it.”
Violations against three Farrell-Cooper mines were dismissed after company officials met with several of Zinke’s top political appointees in 2017.
On solar and wind power
Claim: “Every energy source has its consequence. We talked about solar briefly, that when you put a 500 mile solar panel system up — and we’re talking some of these scaled projects are like that — that means you’re not going to be able to recreate on that land, it’s going to be single use, no habitat. Wind chops up a lot of birds. So you’ve got to be careful about that. About 500,000 birds, a lot of bats, more bats than birds.”
Reality: The largest solar installation in America, the Solar Star station in California, is spread over five square miles. It’s not clear what, if anything, Zinke is referring to with his 500-mile claim, but the largest solar station in the world, China’s Tengger Desert Solar Park, covers 16 square miles. It’s also false that solar farms lead to “no habitat.” A 2016 study in the UK found an increase in biodiversity at 11 solar farms studied.
Zinke’s purported concern for birds and bats is a talking point straight out of the oil and gas industry playbook. He is cherry picking a high-end estimate of bird deaths from a study that looked at three different approaches. Regardless, scientists say cats and cell towers kill far more birds than wind turbines.
If Secretary Zinke was truly concerned about bird deaths, he wouldn’t be gutting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, telling companies that they won’t be held accountable for dead birds — even in an oil spill — as long as the killing isn’t intentional.
On his Halliburton real estate deal
Claim: “They’ve lost their mind, they don’t even try to get it right anymore. Last article that involved me, the reporter lied to the city of Whitefish, he lied to the developer, he lied in the press. It’s just lies, and there’s no credibility anymore.”
Reality: Zinke claims, without providing evidence, that Politico reporters lied over the course of their reporting on Zinke’s real estate deal with the chairman of Halliburton, one of the largest oil-service companies in the world. However, Zinke confirmed in another interview that Politico’s reporting was accurate — he admitted to meeting with the project developer and Halliburton Chairman Dave Lesar in his office last August. A nonprofit organization founded by Zinke plans to donate land to the Halliburton development, and a company controlled by Zinke and his wife Lola owns three properties, all of which stand to benefit from the deal, directly across the street.
Claim: “We need to catch up our infrastructure, and the president’s budget is the largest investment in the history of this country on our parks, wildlife refuges, and Indian education.”
Reality: This bald-faced lie is still one of Zinke’s favorite talking points, even though PolitiFact debunked it months ago. Even if Congress was to pass and fully fund the president’s infrastructure proposal, it would be a significantly smaller investment in public lands than the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s.
On being a SEAL vs. being a cabinet secretary
Claim: “I’ve been shot at before. I’m very comfortable being shot at. People ask me what’s easier, being a SEAL commander or a cabinet member. In many ways a SEAL is actually easier, ’cuz when people shot at you, you could shoot back.”
Reality: Zinke tells this “joke” in almost every public appearance. We don’t know of any interviews in which anyone has actually asked Zinke whether it’s easier being a SEAL or a cabinet member, but he certainly likes asking the question of himself.
The implication of this line, however, is more disturbing: Zinke is conflating free speech, reporting, and fact-checking with actual gunfire. No one has literally shot at Zinke since his Navy career stalled after he got caught abusing government travel. Since then, he has never held back from shooting back — in the metaphorical sense — at those who criticize him on the job.