In the history of the United States, there have been 52 Interior secretaries. Rare is the average citizen who could name even one. Ryan Zinke might change that.
Zinke’s first day as President Trump’s choice to run the Department of the Interior should have been clue No. 1 that this former two-term congressman from Montana was no ordinary cabinet member. Clad in blue jeans and a cowboy hat, he rode a horse through the streets of Washington D.C. and has created a stir in the 11 months since.
Take Zinke’s latest plan, which allows for the largest expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling in U.S. history; It offers oil and gas companies 47 potential lease sales for nearly all of the nation’s coastlines, including the Pacific Northwest, the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico.
Zinke, who oversees 400 million acres of public lands, says opening up waters to gas and oil exploration could provide billions of dollars to fund federal conservation efforts — a head-scratching logic akin to cutting down trees for a better view of the forest.
The plan is aligned with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” agenda, filed under what Zinke calls “Energy dominance.” We say this rapacious policy is an open invitation to the oil industry to use public waters as a fossil fuel spigot. Due to fracking activity, the U.S. is already the largest producer of oil and gas combined.
Zinke told reporters: “Under President Trump, we’re going to have the strongest energy policy and become the strongest energy superpower. We certainly have the assets to do that.”
Thankfully, several Washington leaders have made it clear they want Zinke’s hands far away from coastal assets.
Leading the charge is Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She took to the Senate floor last week to detail some of the detrimental impacts of drilling Washington’s outer continental shelf.
She urged Zinke to drop “this foolish idea.” Aware the Trump Administration repealed regulations put in place after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Cantwell asked, “If a spill happened, who would be there to clean it up?”
Cantwell reminded her colleagues that Washington’s coastline commerce contributes $50.3 billion in economic activity and generates 191,100 jobs.
She said Zinke’s unprecedented proposal jeopardizes most of the nation’s ocean-related industries like fishing, tourism and shipbuilding, which bring in $74.8 billion in wages and $152.5 billion in GDP.
So far, the only coastal state spared from Zinke’s drilling vision is Florida.
Gov. Rick Scott applied for an exemption and Zinke immediately complied, tweeting: “Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver. As a result of discussion with Governor Scott’s (sic) and his leadership, I am removing Florida from consideration of any new oil and gas platforms.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee joined California Gov. Jerry Brown and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to ask for the same consideration. Meantime, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is poised for a lawsuit; he sent a letter to Zinke last week calling the secretary’s plan “unlawful, unsafe and harmful to the economy.”
Interior officials scheduled 23 meetings in coastal states to secure public feedback. The first was supposed to take place at the Tacoma Landmark Convention Center, but word of a protest rally got out, and the administration abruptly canceled.
Who knows if Tacoma will get another chance to weigh in on offshore drilling. But don’t expect this former Navy SEAL to back down easy. “I don’t yield to public pressure,” he told a reporter.
He’s proposed tripling entrance fees at 17 national parks, including Mount Rainier and Olympic; he’s advised Trump to shrink the boundaries of four federal land sites; and he’s opened two million acres of public lands to uranium mining, the largest rollback of land protection ever.
If Zinke gets half of what he’s proposed, he may go down in history as the Interior secretary with the most memorable impact on the American landscape, from sea to shining oil rig. But it won’t happen without a fight from this Washington.