The Fix Was In: Emails show Zinke staff focused on potential for drilling and mining in national monuments

Report shows senior Interior Department officials fielding requests to shrink Bears Ears just days into secretary’s tenure

Bears Ears Buttes in Utah | Photo by Tim Peterson

An investigative report by the New York Times confirms that drilling and mining were central to Interior Secretary Zinke’s recommendation to dramatically shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah. Unsurprisingly, the report contradicts Zinke’s blanket claim that eliminating vast swaths of the monuments was “not about energy,” and internal documents reveal that Zinke’s staff was assessing oil, gas, and mineral potential in Bears Ears within days of him taking office.

Ryan Zinke was sworn in as Interior Secretary on March 1, 2017, having assured Congress he was a strong conservationist in the vein of President Teddy Roosevelt. However, internal emails paint a vastly different picture. On March 13, less than two weeks later, Zinke’s senior staff were reviewing a memo outlining mineral potential within Bears Ears, containing maps of oil, uranium, copper, vanadium, gravel resources, and more. Just two days later, staff for Utah Senator Orrin Hatch weighed in with a proposal to carve out oil and gas-rich lands from the monument.

Keep in mind this was a full month and a half before President Trump ordered Zinke to review national monuments for reduction or elimination.

President Trump directs Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review national monuments for reduction or elimination | DOI Flickr

As Zinke continued to state there was “no pre-determined outcome on any monument,” his staff scrambled to get data on mineral potential in other monuments around the West. Putting out a call for data from land managers, DOI staff asked for stats on energy and mineral potential within monuments and whether production would have likely occurred had the monument not been designated.

Writing about Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, staff reported that “the Kaiparowits plateau, located within the monument, contains one of the largest coal deposits in the United States.” Had the monument not been designated, staff speculated that “recent advances in underground coal mining techniques would likely result in the development of additional large areas of Kaiparowits coal resources not considered minable in the 1990’s.” Sure enough, in slashing Grand Staircase-Escalante in half, President Trump and Secretary Zinke carved out coal-rich areas of the monument once targeted for new mines.

Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument in Arizona | BLM Flickr

In another instance, emails show Bureau of Land Management staff confirming that no oil, gas, or coal potential existed within Arizona’s Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument. Just 14 days later Secretary Zinke “pardoned” the monument, announcing he would not seek its elimination or reduction.

It’s worth noting that the Interior Department tried desperately to keep these documents under wraps. In reporting the story, the New York Times was forced to sue the department for failing to comply with open records laws. With help from Yale Law School, the paper obtained more than 25,000 pages of internal emails. Notably, more than 20,000 of those pages dated from the Obama administration and described the exhaustive process undertaken before designating national monuments.

Even after the Washington Post reported that a uranium company, Energy Fuels Resources, successfully lobbied the Interior Department to eliminate parts of Bears Ears, Secretary Zinke continued to claim his goal was not to open up more land for drilling and mining. However, the thousands of emails now reported in the New York Times show that his senior staff was keenly interested in energy potential and openly taking suggestions on how to shrink monuments to allow production of oil, coal, and uranium. With each new revelation, it is clear that the fix was in from the start.