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Guest Opinion: Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke’s real scandals

The media risk getting the story of Ryan Zinke’s record as Interior secretary wrong.

A recent Huffington Post article headlined “Stinky Zinke” describes a slimy trail of scandal Zinke has blazed through his office, prompting 11 investigations. The Halliburton land deal, secret meetings, charter plane and helicopter trips and several cases of mixing partisan politics with Interior business – all these and more are on his list of alleged waste, abuse and conflicts of interest.

While charges of personal misconduct attract public attention, they are less important than Zinke’s decisions to favor oil, gas, coal and mineral extraction over other multiple uses of federal land – decisions imposing huge and lasting damage to federal lands, public treasuries and local communities.

Zinke’s most recent decision may be the most astounding. He decided that energy companies that despoil federal lands won’t always have to pay a price for damage they cause. He even labeled the long-standing policy of requiring payments for harming the land “un-American.”

In the America I know, tenants pay owners for damage to property they occupied. Parents teach children to clean up after themselves or otherwise take responsibility for problems they cause. However, in Zinke’s twisted view, big energy is exempt from the ordinary rules of life requiring the rest of us to pay for harm we cause. Worse yet, Zinke’s “gift of irresponsibility” to corporations can impose huge costs on society and encourage them to ravage public lands even more.

This decision continues Zinke’s pattern of using federal lands to create a “triple threat” to the public interest:

    Granting enormous benefits to energy companies at the expense of taxpayers, states, tribes and communities;

    damaging the environment and accelerating climate change; and

    thwarting the use of federal lands for conservation, recreational, historical and sustainable economic purposes.

Disturbingly, Zinke’s actions often cut the public out of the decision-making for public lands.

Zinke repealed rules requiring companies to reduce methane waste and pay royalties on gas emissions. Interior admits this decision will reduce royalties from corporations by tens of millions of dollars over the next decade. Other experts gauge the lost royalty revenue at hundreds of millions. Waste methane contributes to asthma, respiratory infections, cancer and neurological damage and is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in causing climate change. Favoring natural gas production discourages other beneficial uses of public lands.

He repealed rules closing loopholes that allow energy companies to underpay federal royalties. Again, estimates of lost revenue range from $75 million (Interior’s number) to hundreds of millions annually – billions over the next decade. Subsidizing fossil fuels is part of the Trump/Zinke “energy dominance” strategy benefiting corporate allies and sacrificing sustainable uses of public lands.

Zinke repealed a rule requiring greater safety in well fracking operations and transparency in reporting chemicals used to help evaluate their negative public health impacts. This cut industry costs nearly $300 million over the next decade while increasing public health and safety risks.

He helped shrink national monuments and is surrounding several with ill-advised leases for oil, gas and uranium at bargain basement prices. “Ring-fencing” monuments with mineral extraction threatens them with environmental risks and denies them a buffer of compatible ranching and conservation uses of adjacent lands.

Zinke’s actions recklessly grant gifts to energy companies; reduce recreational and conservation uses of public lands; threaten public health; deny states, tribes and local communities revenues; and needlessly worsen climate change. The real scandal is this administration’s lack of proper stewardship of public lands, which should be available for the enjoyment of generations to come.

Dan Bucks is a former Montana director of revenue.


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