4 Major Issues Zinke Will Face on Day One

Via E&E Publishing:

Ryan Zinke, a second-term Republican congressman, is expected to be confirmed this morning as the 52nd secretary of the Interior.

When he enters the marbled halls of Interior’s headquarters in Washington later today, the former Navy SEAL will be the first Montanan to head the sprawling bureaucracy that manages more than 500 million acres of America’s public lands.

Zinke will inherit more than 70,000 federal employees working in bureaus that set policy across a wide breadth of areas, from managing U.S. national parks to overseeing fossil fuel and renewable energy production on federal lands both onshore and offshore to working with the 567 federally recognized Native American tribes.

It’s a huge job, noted Zinke’s predecessor Sally Jewell, who served as Interior secretary under former President Obama from April 2013 through the end of his administration.

“You realize very quickly the gravity of the decisions you make, the importance of them, the number of people that are impacted, and not just people today, but again future generations,” Jewell told a Georgetown University audience in November (Climatewire, Nov. 30, 2016).

“Anybody that sits in these chairs is going to find that out very quickly that if they surround themselves with people that only give them part of the story, they’re quickly going to learn that there are checks and balances in our system that have a way of correcting that,” she said.

E&E News surveyed former Interior officials on the issues Zinke will face in the first weeks on the job. Here are four to watch:

Will he kill the coal reform review?

In January of 2015, Jewell launched a three-year comprehensive review of the federal coal leasing program administered by Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. Federal coal accounts for a little more than 40 percent of all coal mined in the United States and is mostly located in the Powder River Basin region of Montana and Wyoming.

At the same time, Jewell’s secretarial order called for a pause in the issuance of new federal coal leases, except in emergency circumstances. The agency noted that coal companies could continue to mine the large amount of coal reserves already held under lease, enough to sustain current levels of production from federal lands for approximately 20 years (Greenwire, Jan. 15, 2016).

President Trump, who vowed both on the campaign trail and now in the White House to revitalize the coal industry, has pledged to ax the three-year moratorium component of the review. The president is widely expected to soon issue an executive action that would do away with the pause.

What is less clear is if the president will disband the top-to-bottom review of the program itself or if that decision will be left to the incoming Interior secretary. Zinke would only have to amend the existing secretarial order or issue a new one.

Many former officials noted that there are good arguments for keeping the review going. President Reagan was in office the last time a programmatic review was conducted. In recent years, the federal coal program has come under fire from both environmental groups and consumer protection groups, which questioned if the program is a good deal for taxpayers and protective enough of the environment.

Both a Government Accountability Office report released in 2014 and a 2013 Interior Department inspector general’s report raised questions about how the Bureau of Land Management assesses the fair market value of minerals, awards leases and sets royalty rates.

“Presumably the federal coal review is one of the first things the new secretary would review and then assess whether to continue with reforms,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, a former Obama Interior official who is now at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

Even after Trump’s widely expected executive action to kill the leasing pause comes down, Lee-Ashley said, Zinke could proceed with the comprehensive review to “chart a middle path.”

In the final days of the Obama administration, the agency released its “road map” for reforms it believes are necessary to the federal program that leases public coal to mining companies. They included recommendations to raise royalty rates and incorporating compensation to offset climate and resource impacts.

How will he manage a sharply reduced budget?

“One of the very first things on his desk will be the budget,” said David Hayes, former deputy assistant secretary in Obama’s Interior Department.

Reports have surfaced that the Trump administration is looking to slash 10 percent from the Interior budget in fiscal 2018 (Greenwire, Feb. 28).

The White House’s budget blueprint for Interior would cut nearly $1.3 billion from the department’s current annual budget of about $13.3 billion.

The move is part of a bigger budget shift envisioned by the new administration. In order to boost defense spending by $53 billion, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said, the White House intends to cut non-defense spending by the same amount.

Interior’s possible cuts are not as deep as the 24 percent cut rumored for U.S. EPA, but if certain programs are zeroed out, that could affect Zinke’s ability to carry out the goals he outlined during his confirmation hearing.

Those include restoring trust in the agency by working more closely with local communities, reducing the $12.5 billion National Park Service maintenance backlog, and giving park rangers and managers in the field increased flexibility.

It’s not clear what is on the chopping block. A request for comment to OMB was not answered in time for publication.

Budget wish lists circulated by prominent conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation note that one Interior program that could be under siege is the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The popular federal program provides money for the purchase and protection of lands. Zinke has repeatedly called for full and complete funding for the program.

“I’ll be curious to see if Zinke acts on the support he’s given the Land and Water Conservation Fund and backs it during the budget process,” Hayes said.

If major cuts are ahead, Zinke will also need to assure his newly inherited 70,000 federal employees that the mission of their sprawling agency will be carried out and should be a priority, he said.

“It will be important for him to provide some assurance on day one to the career staff that he embraces the mission of the department and will work with the career staff on that mission,” Hayes said.

Will he support climate science research?

Interior employs thousands of scientists and researchers located all over the country and even boasts its own scientific agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, which collects data on everything from earthquakes to how climate change is affecting public lands. In recent years — through secretarial orders, executive actions and rulemakings — the value of science as a foundation to policy has taken root across much of the agency.

In responses to questions for the record submitted by Senate committee members, Zinke repeatedly said, “I value sound science.” He deflected questions about how USGS should approach climate change. At his confirmation hearing, Zinke said it is “indisputable” that the climate is changing and humans are having an influence, although he was less firm about the extent to which the science is settled.

Climate science, although part of Interior scientists’ portfolio, is not front and center in the department as much as it is in agencies like EPA. Still, just hours after Trump was sworn into office, Interior suspended all its Twitter activity for about 12 hours in response to the National Park Service sharing tweets about the inauguration turnout and the White House website (Greenwire, Jan. 23).

The Twitter brouhaha grew after a former employee sent out a series of climate-related tweets from Badlands National Park. After the tweets were removed, rogue park rangers using the handle @AltNatParkSer took to the social media site to make sure climate facts didn’t disappear from Interior’s social media (Greenwire, Jan. 25).

“Ignoring the science and their [USGS’s] research is literally detrimental,” said Brandi Colander, Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management under Obama.

Colander, who is now with the National Wildlife Federation, said Zinke has an opportunity to strengthen the portfolio of public lands under Interior’s guise if science and the scientists who carry out research are acknowledged as invaluable resources.

“As more extreme weather trends become the norm, that has huge impacts from a health perspective, from a real estate perspective, from municipal resource perspective, and ultimately, from a federal resource perspective,” she said. “There are things we can and should be doing now to protect ourselves.”

How will he handle Congress?

Already, Congress and Trump have rolled back, or are attempting to peel back, multiple Interior regulations.

Last month, Trump signed a Congressional Review Act resolution of disapproval striking down an Obama-era coal mining regulation. Interior’s Stream Protection Rule imposed new water quality and monitoring standards for coal mines and was vehemently opposed by the industry and conservative lawmakers (E&E News PM, Feb. 16).

In a blog post, Interior praised the move and described killing the Stream Protection Rule as “the first action by the new president to fulfill promises made to American workers to harness the power of American energy, restore their jobs and reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens.”

With the death of the Stream Protection Rule, the regulation doesn’t go away. Interior must now go back to enforcing a 1983 version of the regulation.

Mark Squillace, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School and Clinton-era Interior official, said the old rule complicates other existing statues Interior carries out, including how the Endangered Species Act applies in the coal permitting process.

“One of the problems Zinke is going to face, now that they’ve dumped it, is they go back to the old rule, which led to a lot of litigation and stopped a lot of mining from going on,” he said. “A dead rule doesn’t solve the problem.”

Under the CRA, Interior cannot issue a rule “substantially similar” to the one struck down under the law, the definition of which is likely to be litigated.

The same problem could arise if the Senate takes up a CRA on BLM’s “Planning 2.0” rule, a land planning rule finalized in the last few weeks of the Obama administration. Planning 2.0 establishes what the agency calls a more efficient process to update and revise the roughly 160 resource management plans for millions of acres of federal lands.

Lee-Ashley with CAP said rolling back Planning 2.0 would definitely make the new Interior secretary’s job more difficult.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who says the 1980s land planning rule is working well,” he said. “If it is CRA-ed, that ties the hands of this secretary and others.”

The Endangered Species Act, a bedrock conservation statue, has long garnered ire from some Republican lawmakers who would like to see it changed or scrapped and have more traction with their party in power in both chambers.

Last month, the Trump administration suspended a rule to place a bumblebee on the federal endangered species list, prompting environmental groups to sue. How Zinke handles that case could be a window into his thinking on the Endangered Species Act, said Squillace (E&E News PM, Feb. 14).

Steven Williams, a former FWS director during the George W. Bush administration and now president of the Wildlife Management Institute, said everyone who works with the law recognizes that there are places it could be improved. Success is better achieved with more resources, which would fall on Zinke to lobby for in Congress.

“It’s a question of priorities and a question of what’s in the budget and what resources you can put forth,” he said. “I’m optimistic the secretary will come in with the intellectual discipline to look at the facts, look at the evidence that is there and make decisions on how to allocate resources.”

On the job in general, he added: “It’s like drinking out of a proverbial firehose. It’s a tough job.”

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