The Zinke Doctrine

Make public lands hard for the public to use, easy for industry to abuse

*After publishing this post on Friday morning, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch announced that President Trump would take Secretary Zinke’s guidance and significantly cut protections for Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Here is another in a long line of examples where Secretary Zinke and the president are axing land protections in service of developers.*

More than six months into Secretary Ryan Zinke’s tenure at the Interior Department, we’re getting a clear picture of what a Zinke Doctrine looks like: serving oil and gas companies is a welcomed blessing, while serving the public and our parks is a burden.

Virtually every major decision that the secretary has made fits neatly into this scheme. His department is proactively gutting rules on the oil and gas industry, leasing vast swaths of national public lands, and slicing the rates oil and gas companies pay taxpayers. At the same time, Secretary Zinke is putting up barriers to conservation and hiking fees for the public to access parks and public lands.

Few weeks offer a more clear and cohesive summary of what the Zinke Doctrine looks like in practice.

First, on Tuesday, the National Park Service proposed a controversial plan to more than double entrance fees into the most popular national parks — from $30 to $70 — under the guise of addressing the multi-billion dollar national park maintenance backlog.

NPS.gov

While the plan will undoubtedly price many Americans out of a summer vacation to places like Glacier or Rocky Mountain National Parks, a Washington Post analysis points out how extremely inadequate the proposal is for addressing unfunded park maintenance needs. The national parks maintenance backlog is currently measured at $11.9 billion; the Zinke proposal would generate an estimated $70 million annually.

Hiking access fees is all the more troubling given the fact that Secretary Zinke has actively pushed for severe budget cuts to national parks, wildlife refuges, and other conservation lands. In fact, the Interior Department has proposed slicing $300 million annually from the National Park Service budget — nearly six times what the secretary hopes to generate through access fee hikes.

Meanwhile this week, Secretary Zinke has proudly and loudly pounded his chest as the Interior Department opens vast swaths of national public lands to energy drillers, while proactively reducing safeguards placed on private companies.

On Tuesday, Secretary Zinke announced a plan to sell off 77 million acres of public waters in the Gulf of Mexico — the largest in U.S. history.

DOI.gov

Despite Secretary Zinke’s braggadocio, industry experts explain that there is not an appetite among oil companies to vastly expand their operations. A story in the Houston Chronicle explains:

In a report Tuesday, the research firm IHS Markit said that the world’s biggest oil companies have divested offshore holdings and become less active in acquiring new tracts. Overall, IHS Markit said, reduced spending on oil and gas exploration offshore has limited the number of quality oil and gas fields available for acquisition, through either outright sales or mergers.

This does not mean that the secretary’s policy decision is insignificant; on the contrary, any lease sold in the Gulf will “benefit” from heavily reduced royalty rates. A decision made this past summer decreased U.S. taxpayers’ share from drilling offshore from 18.75 percent to 12.5 percent. Experts have raised red flags about this rate cut because oil and gas royalties — first set during the 1920s — already fail to maximize taxpayer returns. The surprising rate cut reversed the royalty rate set by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne during President George W. Bush’s term.

On the heels of the Gulf leasing announcement, Secretary Zinke announced his intention to vastly increase the pace and scale of drilling in the wildlife-rich National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. Instead of working to strike a balance between development and conservation — an Obama-era plan opened about half of the reserve to drilling, while protecting the other half — Secretary Zinke plans to throw all caution to the wind.

BLM.gov

As a cap to Secretary Zinke’s week, he issued the long-awaited “Energy Burdens Report.” The report is a summary of the various rules and safeguards on oil and gas companies that the Interior Department intends to roll back.

DOI.gov

Secretary Zinke’s rollbacks are a long list of oil industry priorities: remove limits on the waste of methane pollution, lift transparency requirements on drilling chemicals, undercut planning reforms, open up at-risk species habitat to industrial activities, and increase oil and gas access onto national monuments and wildlife refuges.

The “Energy Burdens Report” is a companion to Secretary Zinke’s secret national monuments report delivered over the summer to President Trump. The report recommended unprecedented changes to undercut at least ten national monuments, including unprotecting a million or more acres across the Western U.S. valued for outdoor recreation, hunting and fishing, cultural heritage, and wildlife protection.

Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir at Yellowstone | National Park Service archives

Secretary Zinke desperately wants the American public to believe that he is a Teddy Roosevelt Republican — passionate about conserving, while responsibly using America’s lands. He’s not.

The Zinke Doctrine, articulated through the secretary’s actions, is anathema to President Roosevelt, who famously said,

“Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.”

Nothing in Secretary Zinke’s tenure lives up to this lofty aspiration.

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