The start of the new year has been rocky for Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke. He’s on the hot seat for exempting Florida from the Trump administration’s expanded oil and gas offshore drilling proposal without bothering to notify his boss, and for his failure to disclose an investment in a Montana gun company, a possible conflict of interest.
Those stumbles added to other missteps that have befallen the secretary during the 10 months since he took control of the department, which manages vast federal lands including monuments, parks, refuges as well as abundant natural resources. He booked a $12,000 flight home on a charter jet owned by an oil executive and other private flights to island-hop in the Caribbean. He billed taxpayers more than $6,000 for a helicopter trip he took to rush to a horseback ride with Vice President Mike Pence. Zinke said that criticism that the flights were a misuse of funds was “a wild departure from reality.”
But his office admitted error last month after Newsweek revealed that Zinke used nearly $40,000 from a wildfire preparedness fund to pay for flights. The revelation came at a time when state and federal officials in California had just finished fighting two massive wildfires at enormous expense.
Zinke’s approach to running Interior has raised eyebrows since his first days at the helm. The former Navy SEAL required an employee to raise a secretarial flag when Zinke entered the building and lower it when he went home. He adorned his large executive suite with the mounted head of a bison and a collection of military knives. And while other Interior secretaries have made and distributed commemorative coins, Zinke is the only one in recent memory to stamp his own name on his.
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It was reported this month that President Donald Trump was deeply frustrated by Zinke’s promise to Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott that new drilling leases would not be offered off the state’s coast, but people in the White House with some knowledge of the situation say the secretary’s job appears secure.
Zinke has vowed to execute the president’s massive proposed budget cut at his own department, even if it means getting rid of 4,000 full-time positions. In a congressional hearing in June, Zinke defended the proposal, saying, “This is what a balanced budget looks like.”
He is also in the midst of an effort to execute Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda by expanding drilling in sensitive federal areas on land and at sea. Zinke also withstood a hailstorm of opposition to dramatically shrink two national monuments in Utah, Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears.
Zinke’s office declined to respond for this article.
But the execution of the offshore drilling plan has not been flawless, and some actions could undermine the administration’s ability to carry out its agenda. After the Florida exclusion, other Republican governors of coastal Atlantic states openly complained, asking for the same exemption, or at least a face-to-face meeting like the one Zinke granted Scott.
Not surprisingly, Democrats who lead coastal states also complained about Zinke’s handling of the offshore drilling decisions. Governors in both parties said their states might resort to legal action to protect beaches.
The Atlantic coastline of North Carolina is longer than Florida’s, and Virginia’s is nearly equal. Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey rely on Atlantic beaches for tourism nearly as much as the Sunshine State does. The Republican governor of Massachusetts wants to protect state gems such as Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard.
Axios reported that Trump “turned on” Zinke for cutting the deal with Florida, which might have violated a law that calls for a multistep process that could take up to a year before making such decisions. And an official at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees drilling leases and regulation at Interior, appeared to backtrack from the secretary’s action during a House subcommittee hearing.
Walter Cruickshank, BOEM’s acting director, said “no formal decision” had been made on taking Florida off the table. Meanwhile, in an interview, Scott insisted the Florida coast will not be developed for oil and gas, saying Zinke gave him his word.
Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said Cruickshank didn’t necessarily refute Zinke, explaining that he simply pointed out that Florida’s portion of the outer continental shelf will be studied along with that of every other coastal state, regardless of whether drilling happens there.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Zinke said he planned to meet with every governor on the coast. But his deal with Scott might have given other governors ammunition for future fights over the legality of opening their states to offshore drilling.
Zinke is also under fire by once-friendly Republican governors inland. At least two are speaking against the Interior Department’s plan to expand oil and gas drilling into the heart of an iconic bird’s dwindling habitat, adding to a bipartisan chorus of governors who are concerned about Zinke’s bid to expand energy exploration across federal lands despite environmental risks.
Interior is planning to auction hundreds of thousands of acres to the oil industry for leases on Wyoming land that is protected to conserve the greater sage grouse, a bird resembling a chicken that only exists in the western United States.
Under an existing plan that has been heralded as an example of multistate, bipartisan cooperation balancing conservation and development, officials are working to safeguard and improve the land sage grouse need to flourish. Zinke wants to undo the hard-won plan.
“We are concerned that this is not the right decision,” Wyoming Republican Gov. Matthew Meade wrote in a letter to Zinke in May before reaffirming it in a statement weeks ago. Colorado Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper co-signed the letter, which stated “Wholesale changes to the land use plans are likely not necessary at this time.” Nevada Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval has also criticized Zinke’s proposed changes to the plan.
But governors who support more drilling have Zinke’s back. They include Alaska Independent Gov. Bill Walker and Maine Republican Gov. Gary LePage on offshore drilling, and Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, two Republicans who believe the sage grouse management plan should be changed.
Herbert and Otter sued the federal government soon after the Interior Department under the Obama administration declined to list sage grouse as endangered or threatened in return for strict management of their habitat by 10 of the 11 sagebrush states. They claimed the management plan that set aside land to protect sage grouse had a worse impact than the endangered listing they worked to avoid. The oil and gas industry agreed, saying the deal was bad for Utah and Idaho and good for Wyoming.
As the year unfolds, Zinke has several unpopular policy decisions on his agenda. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under Interior must decide whether to lift a ban on shipping trophies of elephants shot in Zimbabwe, a plan Trump opposed. Interior may continue reassigning senior executives, which has drawn charges of retaliation. Zinke is proposing the most dramatic reorganization in Interior’s history, shifting offices to points across the country and moving potentially thousands of federal positions. And he will continue the highly contentious process of reviewing some national monuments to determine if they should be downsized.