Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has been making headlines for weeks now, from his ties to a land deal in Montana to a tweet accusing Democratic Representative Raul Grijalva (AZ) of being an alcoholic. However, hidden among these flashier developments are consequential and environmentally harmful bills that the Department of the Interior (DOI) has pushed for under Zinke’s leadership.
Zinke, along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under Scott Pruitt, has worked to repeal many Obama-era regulations in his new role, aiming to return land usage law to the jurisdiction of local communities. This misguided attempt to decentralize the DOI has resulted in policies favoring oil and coal lobbyists, and has fostered Zinke’s close relationship to organizations like Halliburton and the American Legislative Exchange Council—a Koch brothers-backed nonprofit. While these relationships may not be new or surprising, seeing as he failed to resign from top positions within companies months into office, the possibility of his connections to big oil and coal companies compromising his ability to fulfill the duties of his office may be manifesting already.
While Zinke faces over half a dozen ethics investigations, the most impactful concerns the Halliburton-backed land deal made by Zinke’s wife Lola Zinke in their hometown of Whitefish, Montana. On land that has been described as a large “mudhole,” Halliburton’s chairman David Lesar plans to build a hotel, retail stores, and a microbrewery. Developments on this plot would increase the value of multiple Zinke-owned properties, and the family had previously discussed development plans with neighbors. For example, Double Tap LLC, the company Zinke headed to manage property in Whitefish, is one of the companies Zinke did not immediately recuse himself from upon his confirmation as Secretary of the Interior, along with Continental Divide International and the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park.
This is not the first ethical issue Zinke has been involved with, and his wife Lola Zinke has caused issues in the past as well. As she took over their companies and property developments in Montana, the Zinkes were also causing problems for DOI staffers. Zinke attempted to get his wife listed as an employee or volunteer for the DOI so her travel costs would be covered by taxpayers. Zinke’s request to ride with her husband also presented other ethical complications for the department, since spouse accompaniment on government transportation is not allowed. The relationship between the Zinkes and big oil has allowed the Zinkes to develop and maintain a wealthy estate, but now as Zinke heads a national agency, his integrity as Secretary of the Interior may be compromised.
The controversy with Zinke’s past companies is that he has been paid by the companies despite there being no real business or official transaction, as discussed in his financial disclosure report. He essentially transfers money among the companies and into the GOP’s races. Taking money from companies that have a direct impact on the value of his land in Montana is likely what is happening in the Halliburton investigation. Prior to Zinke’s confirmation as secretary, he had business endeavors in Whitefish backed by oil powerhouse Lesar that continued to develop well into his time in eoffice. The relationship between the two started so long ago it would be easy to call the meetings and favors just dealings between old friends—yet with Zinke’s history of favoring the nonrenewable energy sector, Congress should be wary of doing so. The DOI is responsible for determining who can and cannot drill and mine deposits all over the country, and Zinke’s ability or willingness to make objective decisions with regards to that responsibility is open to debate.
Zinke’s position allows him to favor the interests of oil companies and miners to the extent of allowing practices previously outlawed simply as favors to certain individuals or groups. For example, amid an expansion of offshore drilling that upset many coastal states, Zinke took a trip to Florida to assure the newly elected Governor Ron DeSantis that his state would be exempt from these laws to protect the state’s tourism industry. Following this visit, the DOI announced that it will consider opening up more regions of the continental shelf alongside new energy leases starting in 2019. Similarly, Zinke suggested the use of naval bases in remote regions of Alaska to circumvent resistance to new offshore drilling sites in the Pacific Northwest and supply allies with cheaper energy. He has been congratulated by the Koch brothers (two of the wealthiest names in energy) on shrinking parks and national monuments, unsurprising considering the Kochs’ interest in mineral deposits near national parks, and the relationship between the Kochs and Zinke is growing stronger after Zinke delivered the keynote address at a Koch event. Zinke consistently makes decisions to favor businesses rather than the DOI’s duty to protect land—not destroy it.
Meetings with energy companies or Koch-backed organizations are often a precursor to legislation severing federally owned land. Even after Zinke commented that he is absolutely against the sale or severance of public land, he proposed a sale of two hundred acres in Emery County, Utah to PacificCorp—an electricity company that uses oil and natural gas to power parts of the West Coast. After his meeting with American Legislative Exchange Council, we saw House bills come out in favor of giving public land back to local communities—an action which is seen by some as the release of land to be controlled by corporations in those local areas. Montana (one of the nation’s largest reserves of recoverable coal), North Dakota, and Wyoming are three states that continue to see land deals made to benefit companies that opt to drill instead of protect the wilderness.
In the past week, bills coming out of the House Committee on Natural Resources have gone unnoticed by the media, largely overshadowed by news of Zinke’s investigation and disrespectful conduct. Thus, it would be remiss to not delve into a few new bills here, as legislation is what ultimately impacts citizens more than the personal qualities of politicians. However, in the case of Zinke and the DOI, it seems that these bills do reflect the same reality.
H.R. 3593 allows customs agents and border patrol to “conduct border security activities in previously designated wildlife areas,” which is roughly 693 miles along the southern border. Another bill, H.R 5025, makes reporting illegal fishing activity even more difficult and less likely to be punished. The third bill, H.R 6939, caps the amount of land in Wyoming named as wilderness, no longer identifies land previously called wilderness as such, and returns federal lands back to the state. The DOI press releases often highlight the development of federal lands to emphasize the potential economic benefits of expanding mining, agriculture, and energy production on previously protected or federally owned areas. Unfortunately, the development of federal lands is usually accompanied by the degradation of the environment.
In the 2018 fiscal year, there was a sixty-thousand-person increase in mining and logging jobs due to DOI deregulatory policies. Logging is a source of carbon dioxide pollution, because forests often act like greenhouse gas sponges—when they are cut down, all the pollutants are released. There was a $6 billion increase in energy disbursements that accompanied the department’s record-breaking sales. This increase is due to the deregulation of energy sectors, including oil and coal, and represents the revenue gained as developments continue to drill or mine. In late October, Zinke approved Hilcorp Energy Company’s plan to drill in the federal waters of Alaska on an artificial island—even though this company has a history of safety issues, the previous CEO was a major GOP donor. The continued rollback of environmental regulations and policies are what allow the DOI to boast this economic gain, and encourage Zinke to continue dealing with corporations to rid the United States of any energy dependence.
While legislation that deals with public land can be seen as less glamorous, it has a direct impact on communities, the environment, and certain groups in a way that other legislation does not. Wyoming already has issues with lack of access to public land, as private owners surround the area and fence it off, which affects herding, fishing, and recreational activities that all bring revenue to the state. North Dakota is a state fraught with tension between indigenous or rural communities and the energy industry. Zinke does them no favors by speaking at an oil conference hosted in Bismarck, or by suggesting that the government and the energy industry should work together to increase production. In Montana, three landowners and some environmental groups have sued in response to the sale of public land as energy leases—a decision they say will have an enormous environmental impact. The landowners involved stated concern for their water and potential contamination by drilling, as well as topical land scars that affect their ability to farm.
Rural areas are at more risk of being taken advantage of, both by the DOI and by oil companies, because their copious amounts of undeveloped land are a gold mine for fracking and other harmful drilling practices. Water is easily contaminated by companies who refuse, and are not required, to report what chemicals they shoot into the ground in the hopes of striking oil. Land is destroyed by companies who promise residents that they will clean up the mess made by developments—and never do. Indigenous groups are also taken advantage of and disregarded while pipelines and drilling is considered.
Over and over we see the effects of erroneous DOI policy on communities, and yet when compared to Zinke’s flashy behavior and the money he spends on interior decorating, the real story gets lost. His connection to big money in energy, repeated sales of public land, and lack of concern for the environmental repercussions of any departmental actions lead to irresponsible policy on balance. Amid so many investigations, communities themselves need to start asking the questions.
Note: This article was written on December 15 and hence may not include developments that have occurred since then.The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons 2.0 License. The original was taken by Gage Skidmore and can be found here.