Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will depart at the end of the year, but his conservative supporters and environmental critics both agree his legacy on oil and gas drilling will be long lasting.
Zinke was instrumental in carrying out the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda, with the year poised to see more land being opened up to licenses and potentially the first new offshore drilling in decades. His replacement is unlikely to alter course.
“That is clearly something President Trump has sunk his teeth into,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an energy trade group. “I don’t really see a lot of change.
“Secretary Zinke lead the charge on the energy dominance agenda, but that agenda comes from the very top. And I just don’t see President Trump shifting course. Not when the increased oil and natural gas production in the U.S. has so clearly lead to more jobs and economic growth,” Sgamma continued.
Zinke, who is leaving the administration following a slew of ethics controversies, focused much of his 20 months in the Cabinet on expanding oil and gas drilling on public lands and shrinking the boundaries of two national monuments.
Zinke regularly touted his actions as implementing the president’s March 2017 executive order on “Energy Independence.”
“If there’s one thing the president has done with Interior, it’s we’ve given back the local community voice, the state’s voice, in wildlife management, in lands management, in our parks, our recreation opportunities, and oil and gas, too,” said Zinke in an exit interview he gave to Fox News that aired Friday.
Under Zinke’s tenure, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) made a sweeping change to the way it auctioned off government-owned lands and waters for leasing. Before, the agency focused on sales of small pinpointed clusters of likely oil-rich areas. Under Zinke, the focus shifted to offering thousands of acres for lease in one fell swoop, a change championed by the oil and gas industry.
In March, Interior held the largest oil and gas leasing sale in U.S. history, auctioning 77.3 million acres of offshore waters to drilling across Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Many of those gigantic sales ultimately auctioned off only a small percentage of what was offered. The March sale leased just over 1 percent of the tracts offered — a fact highlighted by environmentalist groups who criticized the sales. And many plots leased to fossil fuel companies last year sold for only the minimum bid price of $2 an acre.
“The values that are driving Secretary Zinke’s oil and gas leasing plans have been about maximizing opportunity for drilling without regard to the fiscal benefits to taxpayers. If you had a fiscal conservative in there really trying to both promote oil and gas production and generate the biggest payment, you’d have a very different approach,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, former deputy chief of staff under Obama Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and senior director of environmental strategy and communications and the Center for American Progress.
Yet, with U.S. oil and gas prices hitting record highs and the country’s recent breakthrough as the world’s leading crude oil producer, experts and critics alike agree that the Trump administration’s changes will continue under a new secretary.
Zinke’s last White House meeting to reportedly discuss a soon-to-be-announced five-year drilling strategy, all but cements that legacy.
“I think that’s really the most important legacy that Secretary Zinke will have, is moving back to that multiple use concept on areas of federal land designed for multiple use,” said Dan Naatz, senior vice president of government relations and political affairs at the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
“Largely BLM lands are areas that are available for energy production and also available for recreation and agriculture. Our frustration with the Obama administration was they moved much more toward a single-use philosophy, and much to the detriment of our members who wanted to use those areas for oil and gas production,” he said.
Chase Huntley, energy and climate program director at The Wilderness Society, thinks that legacy will continue regardless of who replaces Zinke.
“From our perspective, I’m not convinced much of anything is going to change. The president can change the figure heads and the flag flying over Interior, but the policy commitment at Interior to put industry first runs deep, and whoever is going to sit in the secretary’s chair is just going to go along for the ride,” he said.
Potential candidates in the running to replace Zinke — a former Montana congressman — come from similar backgrounds. A majority hail from Western States with big hopes for expanding oil and gas development.
The likely frontrunner, current Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, has been closely involved in organizing many of the oil and gas leasing sales, including a recently released proposal to begin drilling in Alaska’s arctic.
“Like a CEO and a COO, he has been intimately involved in designing the details of these policies and putting them in place throughout the bureaucracy,” said Sgamma. “So he is more than capable.”
Bernhardt worked at Interior in various capacities, including solicitor, during the George W. Bush administration. He has also had multiple stints at the lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, representing clients with business before Interior. Bernhardt will serve as Interior’s acting administrator until Trump makes a formal nomination.
Environmentalists say there’s an opportunity for a new secretary to still embrace drilling while doing so in a more balanced way.
But with Bernhardt staying on, scaling down the agency’s drilling agenda seems highly unlikely in 2019.
“There is an opportunity … [for] an Interior secretary midterm to do a course correction,” said Lee-Ashley. “That said, the person really driving the oil and gas leasing program has been Bernhardt, and with him staying on, he seems to be very much at the center of the ‘lease everything’ mantra.”