Fellow Story

There Will Be Oil: Regulation and energy under Ryan Zinke

Editor's note: The following post by Fellow Jessica Hall first appeared on the new blog Laws & Nature: Tracking the Planet in the Age of Trump.

Ryan Zinke started work today as Secretary of the Interior, riding in on a horse named Tonto. The former Republican Congressman from Montana was one of the least contested candidates of the Trump administration cabinet, passing the Senate 68-31.That’s not surprising: His confirmation hearing emphasized working with local stakeholders, collaboration, and understanding specific needs of each region in contrast to “one size fits all” approaches to governance, which many rural communities will embrace.

His approach to fire fuels management and timber harvest appeared to be well received by the Energy and Environment Committee. He demonstrated awareness of the diversity of interests and issues facing tribal governments. He claimed the legacy of the conservationist President Teddy Roosevelt, firmly indicating that federal land should not be transferred to the states.

And he repeatedly endorsed energy production—even pointing out twice that a member of the Crow Nation sitting behind him was involved in coal production. You can safely expect that there will be oil. And gas and coal. (And wind and solar)

A line he repeated throughout the confirmation hearing was that, after traveling to about 63 countries, he became convinced that energy production with regulation in the United States is better than energy production abroad without it, that it can “be done right.” This suggests that regulation is the operative difference that makes domestic energy extraction preferable; regulation, in other words, is what makes America a better place to drill than, say, Nigeria. And yet he did not clearly indicate that he would aggressively enforce existing regulations, nor would he challenge the current Republican Congress’s fervor for undoing the Obama administration’s environmental rules.

He was sympathetic to complaints about Bureau of Land Management’s methane-venting rule, which the House has voted to overturn. He voted against Endangered Species protection 21 times.  He voted against clean drinking water, an Environmental Protection Agency-directed lead-abatement program and endangered species protection in the California Delta.

Repeatedly critiquing “one size fits all” rulemaking, he emphasized his collaborative approach, working with local and state stakeholders. This may work well where Department issues do not contain fixed targets or standards to be applied nationally and communities can come to consensus. But what does it mean for businesses that must anticipate their responsibilities and costs? The new administration of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, recently commented to staff: “Regulations ought to make things regular. Regulators exist to give certainty to those that they regulate.” Yet the flexibility that comes with Zinke’s commitment to collaboration suggests that standards may be about to become malleable.

Zinke hinted at this in his exchange with Senator Manchin of West Virginia, about stream definitions, the Stream Protection Rule, and use of the Congressional Review Act (CRA). Manchin complained that some people can’t even tell him what a stream is (let me help you), suggesting that Appalachia’s streams are different and therefore need different standards. Zinke responded: “Geology in Appalachia… much, much different. And a policy about stream protection when it’s looked at specifically on the Appalachians, I think… we can do better.”

Neither man indicted what “better” meant—or how the drinking water in Appalachia, where energy production is ongoing, could be made as safe as the drinking water in New York City, while tailoring regulation to each specific place. But that’s what regulatory agencies do all the time, without malleability of standards: They apply established water quality standards and review and discuss the plans with regulated entities (water suppliers, businesses, local agencies) until they are satisfied that the standards can be met. It’s the loopholes in those standards that both create uncertainty and result in damaged drinking water.

So we are left with the picture of an Interior Secretary who likes regulation, sort of, and energy production a lot. He sounds ready to break through regulatory and policy gridlock in many rural communities. The question remains, though, whether his publicized love of the outdoors and hunting makes him a fighter for the environment.

The Los Angeles Times notes a history of sometimes conflicting positions, and Montana television station Channel 3 cut to the quick in an interview with Wild West Institute environmentalist Matthew Koehler:

“Rep. Zinke has a well-earned 3 percent lifetime voting record* from the League of Conservation Voters.  He earned a 9 percent voting record from the National Parks Conservation Association,” Koehler said.

“We’re being told that well he doesn’t want to completely sell off or give away public lands, so he’s a real Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” Koehler said.  “Here’s the truth about Teddy Roosevelt:  Teddy Roosevelt fought the oil and gas industry tooth and nail.”

But unlike Roosevelt, Zinke’s got them celebrating.

*Note: the LCV website shows a lifetime voting record of 5 percent.