Ryan Zinke’s Disregard for the Environment Was the Real Scandal
His most lasting legacy, if it survives lawsuits, his unprecedented shrinking of national monuments by about 12 million acres on the wish-list of coal and oil interests.
Good riddance to Ryan Zinke, the most anti-environmental Secretary of the Interior in thirty years. Funny thing about his demise, though, is that the scandal that cost him his job—using government vehicles for his family’s benefit—is nothing compared with the scandal of his tenure.
First, as documented in The New York Times, Zinke was investigated for at least fifteen ethics violations: a Montana development deal rife with conflicts of interest, improper politicking on behalf of Republican candidates, huge cost outlays on his office, and others. Many of these were much more serious than the travel scandal.
But even these overt scandals pale in comparison to the scandal of Zinke’s entire tenure, which mirrored that of his similarly-disgraced colleague, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Throughout his administration, Zinke maximized the private benefits of industry (and donors) at the expense of the public good. Zinke’s Department of Interior acted like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the oil and gas industry.
Perhaps Zinke’s most lasting legacy, if it survives the lawsuits, will be his unprecedented shrinking of national monuments by about 12 million acres. Amazingly, when that plan was announced, Zinke (like Pruitt) refused to make his findings public, providing only a two-page summary of what he wanted to cut.
In contrast, the Obama administration held public hearings and stakeholder meetings regarding the establishment of the monuments.
Unsurprisingly, the places to be un-protected were on the wish-list of coal and oil interests. The Bears Ears National Monument is set to shrink 85 percent, from roughly 1.3 million acres to roughly 228,000, and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is set to shrink by half, from around 1.9 million acres to about 1 million. Both had been targeted by industry lobbyists for elimination.
When the reductions were announced in 2017, Navajo Nation vice president Jonathan Nez said, “This is a sad day for Indigenous people and for America.”
But Zinke rarely met with Native or environmental groups. As we learned when his calendar was released in connection with the Montana scandal, Zinke (like Pruitt) overwhelmingly consulted with fossil fuel companies like Halliburton, whose CEO met with the secretary frequently to talk about the Montana deal as well as expanding offshore oil drilling and fracking on public land.
Zinke was also a faithful replicator of Trump’s post-truthiness. He lied about how many regulations Trump has rolled back, lied about “clean coal” (which is not actually a thing), lied about how U.S. coal technologies compare with China’s, made stuff up about the environmental impact of solar power, and greatly exaggerated the Trump administration’s investment in public lands infrastructure.
You might notice a pattern here: everything Zinke says favors coal and gas over everyone else.
One of Zinke’s most egregious handouts to the fossil fuel industry was reported in detail by The Daily Beast last June. For years, the Farrell-Cooper Mining Company had been embroiled in investigations and lawsuits regarding its failure to rehabilitate used mining lands in Oklahoma. Until Trump took office, and Zinke (and Attorney General Jeff Sessions) dropped the case entirely.
The calendars showed that—surprise—Zinke’s senior team had met with the mining company, subsequently not only dismissing the lawsuit, but issuing Farrell-Cooper a new permit that had been stalled for seven years.
That left local Oklahoma landowners—largely Trump supporters— in the lurch, as the company broke its promises to rehabilitate their land, and were then given a get-out-of-jail-free card by the Trump/Zinke administration.
One lawyer who had worked on the case told The Daily Beast that “we had factual and legal proof that these were violations. That they should be vacated sort of makes me disgusted.”
There are countless other such cases. Zinke promoted drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, even spending public money to do seismic testing of the area, a precursor to drilling. He undid Obama-administration protections of sagebrush habitats, even though those protections had been the product of years of negotiations between ranchers, environmentalists, industry, and government. He threw out a similar consensus plan for California desert areas, replacing it with an industry wish-list. He reversed the moratorium on new coal mining in his first month in office, and opened up vast new offshore areas to oil drilling. He gutted rules meant to protect local communities against pollution from oil and gas drilling.
The list goes on and on and on, and all of it was accomplished—one more time, like Pruitt’s EPA —with a minimum of transparency, often in secret, and in violation of both administrative procedure and scientific method.
Ryan Zinke was the living embodiment of “drill, baby, drill,” a slogan whose stupidity obscures its venality. What “drill, baby, drill” means is that short-term interests of greedy oil executives are dressed up as interests of “the people” and “free enterprise,” while actual long-term interests of the public are ignored. It means that the difficult balancing of all those interests are junked, and a puerile pseudo-cowboy ethos—Zinke often appeared in a cowboy hat, and rode a horse to his first day at work—replaces careful, fact-based decision-making.
Zinke’s wife riding in government vehicles is what sunk his career. But the career itself is the real scandal.