When: December 7, 2017
Where: Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations
Title: “Transforming the Department of the Interior for the 21st Century”
What Happened: Almost since he became Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke has talked about his desire to “transform” and “reorganize” the Interior Department. At a June 2017 Senate hearing on DOI’s budget, he told the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that his mission — based on President Trump’s March 2017 “Executive Order on a Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch” — is more or less to shrink the Interior Department. We’ll get back to that in a minute.
Fast forward a bit to the Dec. 7, 2017, hearing in the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. The Republicans on the Committee thought this transformation sounded like a great idea and wanted to hold a hearing to promote it. The trouble was that, months later, there was still no reorganization plan on paper — Democrats had been pushing Zinke to release one so we could discuss its merits, but Interior was silent — so Republicans went ahead with a hearing on reorganizing the entire Interior Department . . . without anyone from the Interior Department there to testify.
If that sounds like a waste of time, well, that’s what Wasted Resources is about. This is the final entry in our Wasted Resources series (other than a wrapup coming this Thursday) because it perfectly encapsulates everything wrong with the Republicans’ approach to this Committee. It was a hearing with a faulty premise — none of Zinke’s complaints about DOI’s structure are justified by the numbers — where Republicans went so far out of their way to protect the Trump administration that they didn’t even get a government witness. It went on for more than an hour, at which point even the Republicans on the Committee seemed to realize nobody was learning anything useful and called it a day.
That’s not to say nothing could have been learned. Here’s some of what Secretary Zinke told the Senate in June 2017:
Interior is moving prudently with implementation and has put in place hiring controls to enable limited hiring, prioritizing filling field positions rather than office positions, and limiting hires in the Washington, D.C., and Denver, Colorado, areas.
[. . .]
The 2018 budget reduces lower priority programs $1.6 billion below 2017 and supports 59,968 full time equivalents. This represents an estimated reduction of roughly 4,000 full time equivalent staff from 2017. To accomplish this, the Department will rely on a combination of attrition, reassignments, and separation incentives. Actual attrition rates and acceptance of separation incentives will determine the need for further action to reduce staffing.
Reducing the Department’s physical footprint and seeking ways to consolidate space and resources will continue to be management objectives going forward.
To the average listener, let alone a lawmaker with years of experience on these issues, that sounds like a pretty ambitious restructuring of a major federal department. Thousands of jobs gone? Limiting new hires at major operations centers? “Reducing the physical footprint?” Why were they planning this? What impacts might it have? What was the point?
Natural Resources Committee Democrats would have loved to hear more from Interior about all this, and we weren’t alone. Reorganizing the Interior Department and its agencies is a massive undertaking that would shape our entire country — its economy, its landscape, its environmental quality — for decades to come.
So who did Republicans invite to testify at this hearing? Well, there was. . .
- Nick Loris, Fellow in Energy and Environmental Policy at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Free Markets and Regulatory Reform
Mr. Loris is one of our Republicans’ favorite witnesses — indeed, he even featured in a previous Wasted Resources installment on oil drilling. When Republicans want someone to say our environmental laws are too strong and government should just get out of industry’s way, they know who to call. He had no particular insight into how a major restructuring would work in practice. (Nobody did at that hearing because there was no plan, but we’ve already covered that.)
- Shawn Regan, Research Fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center
The Property and Environment Research Center is best known for its climate denial publications and its 2015 demand for an end to the creation of national parks. It also wants an end to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a budget-neutral conservation program that Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) has turned into a controversy even though it’s universally popular. It has taken approximately $160,000 from ExxonMobil and tens of thousands of dollars from Koch foundations. The group’s public policy role is limited to recommending weaker environmental standards and staking outlandish positions on public lands management. Among other ideas, Mr. Regan’s testimony included a proposal for a privatized national parks “franchise” system: “If a proposed park warrants national park status, it could be granted the national park title but be owned and operated under private or nonprofit management.”
That’s their idea of “reorganizing” the Interior Department.
- Kathleen Sgamma, President of the Western Energy Alliance
Ms. Sgamma has spent years trying to weaken the Endangered Species Act — she has bizarrely accused the law of “decades of ineffectiveness” — and is a go-to spokesperson when resource extraction industries need cover on public lands issues. She is an opponent of nearly every environmental law on the books and has a trail of damaging quotes a mile long. You can read a great explainer on her record here, but just to give readers a flavor:
Kathleen Sgamma said that “drilling for oil and gas on public lands” has “‘an infinitesimal impact on climate change.’” [Matthew Brown, “Court revives dispute over energy leasing’s climate impacts,” Associated Press, 09/01/15]
Kathleen Sgamma claimed that oil and gas “‘provides more climate benefits than wind and solar combined.’” [Brian Maffly, “Activists cite climate impacts to demand end to all BLM leasing,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 11/17/15]
The American Lung Association, according to Sgamma, “is often used as a tool by the environmental lobby to make exaggerated claims about our industry’s effects on public health, and indeed, the ALA representative at [a 2016 hearing] made alarmist claims about the asthma causing effects of benzene and climate change, none of which are supported by actual science.” [Kathleen Sgamma, Western Energy Alliance blog post, 03/02/16]
Why would these three people be better positioned to discuss the reorganization of the Interior Department than, say, Secretary Zinke? You’d have to ask the Republicans.
The Democratic witness, since we couldn’t get the administration to testify, was Denny Galvin of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. You can read his testimony here. We think you’ll agree it’s more reasonable than what the Republicans had to say. We report, you decide.
If you’ve made it this far through Wasted Resources, you already know what’s at stake here: everything in the Interior Department’s jurisdiction.
They enforce the Endangered Species Act. They implement our nation’s laws for oil, gas and coal extraction. They manage our national parks. They do it all. If “reorganizing” means privatizing, deregulating and handing it all over to industry, then reorganizing would be a disaster. And it looks like that’s what we’re facing.
Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), the ranking member of the subcommittee that held the hearing, subsequently wrote to Sec. Zinke in Feb. 2018 asking him to halt the reorganization — or whatever it was — until Congress and the public could more fully review the plan.
Whatever is happening at DOI isn’t designed to improve enforcement of our environmental laws. A crucial June 2018 article in The New Yorker described Zinke’s tenure as “a sell-off from sea to shining sea,” noting that the damage Zinke is doing cannot be easily reversed: “In the decades to come, one can hope that many of the Trump Administration’s mistakes — on tax policy, say, or trade — will be rectified. But the destruction of the country’s last unspoiled places is a loss that can never be reversed.”
In late August, Federal News Network reported that Zinke was moving forward with parts of his reorganization “without help from Congress.” The Department claims it has no plans to move personnel “at this time.” It would be nice to have a hearing on whether this version of the plan would work — but we haven’t, and we probably won’t.
There was a lot going on that week, and Republicans could have held a number of important hearings on topics of real substance.
That week, President Trump announced his intention to gut an Obama-era rule that requires oil and gas companies operating on federal lands to reduce wasteful methane emissions from drilling. In plain terms, the Trump proposal made it easier for big corporate polluters to dirty our air, land, and water.
Many people have no idea that methane — which is emitted by oil and gas operations, especially through processes known as “venting” and “flaring” — is 36 times more harmful to our climate than carbon dioxide. It’s a big global warming contributor. All the Obama rule did was make sure companies drilling on federal lands were mindful of the unnecessary and dangerous leaks that occur during oil and gas production.
The Trump administration said it had to weaken the rule because of costs to industry — so it’s interesting that even oil companies recognize the Obama rule’s importance. Even after the rule was rescinded, Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, and Chevron all agreed to a stronger monitoring system to reduce methane emissions. Without a formal rule in place, however, the government has no standard by which to conduct oversight investigations, with potentially irreversible consequences for our environment.
Also that week, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt — you remember him as the cabinet official too corrupt to stay in the Trump administration — announced that agency officials were “free to discuss their work,” which he said only after a major backlash from both academics and Democrats when EPA instructed three of its workers to not to share their work at a scientific conference in October.
In case you forgot this episode, here’s what happened. Upon completion of a three-year study designed to assess the health of Narragansett Bay in New England, three EPA workers were set to share their findings of how climate change contributed to increases in water temperature in the estuary. Then the scientists were told to keep quiet about it. After huge public backlash, Pruitt vowed in a letter to Congress that this would never happen again — with no explanation of why such an order was issued to the researchers in the first place.
Also that week, a study was released assessing how climate change models measure up and what the most trustworthy estimates have to say about our environment’s future. The results were, frankly, somewhat frightening. The models that were determined to be most accurate and credible were the models predicting the highest levels of ‘human-driven warming.’ The study measured how well various models captured planetary conditions — specifically things like incoming and outgoing radiation, atmospheric balance, and even cloud cover. Many models struggle to gauge these factors accurately, often relying on educated assumptions about things like cloud patterns. What makes those models more reliable is their ability to best capture the actual behavior of those factors without relying much on predictions. The study concluded that even more stringent environmental protections are needed if we are to avoid catastrophe — but we won’t have those if Republicans keep pretending the sky is purple.
Ranking Member Grijalva published an opinion piece that week calling out Secretary Zinke’s misguided attempts to “reorganize” the Department of the Interior and how his approach was an utter failure, creating needless crisis within the Department.
“Zinke has surprised many with his willingness to support President Donald Trump’s extreme environmental policies, including the recent attempt to erase most of two national monuments in Utah from the map. Those policies have extended to the attempted dismantling of the Interior Department itself, which, as Zinke recently told Outside Magazine, he plans to reorganize along the lines of a “military command.” He indicated to Congress earlier this year that this plan will include losing approximately 4,000 Interior staff and slashing the department’s budget by $1.6 billion. This plan has not improved Interior’s already low staff morale, which Zinke damaged earlier this year when he claimed (inaccurately) that a large percentage of personnel were not loyal to “the flag.””
On Dec. 7, Ranking Member Grijalva and Reps. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) and Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) requested a reassessment of the estimated revenue that oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would generate. Republicans had previously been pushing to open the Arctic Refuge for oil drilling, backed by a Trump administration determined to spin the move as a potential billion-dollar revenue raiser. As the Democrats pointed out, the facts don’t back this up.
Also on Dec. 7, Ranking Member Grijalva released an updated report on trophy hunting and endangered species protection examining problems with U.S. trophy import policies. The report was prompted in part by the infamous killing of Cecil the Lion, a well-known mature male lion living in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, and by Secretary Zinke’s baffling plan to create a committee dedicated to promoting the hunting of endangered species and loosening importation laws. As Grijalva revealed, only an extremely wealthy and narrow demographic benefits from corrupt agencies abroad overseeing trophy hunting. The cost of importing a slain animal to the U.S. is on average twice the annual income of the average American family.