Arrow-right Camera


Outside View: Zinke’s arrogance set off a firestorm

The following editorial appeared in Thursday’s Washington Post.

Is Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke cynical or incompetent? Those are the options after his capricious treatment of states that object to his plan to open oil and gas drilling off their coasts. (There’s also: (c) both of the above.)

Two weeks ago, Zinke suddenly announced that he was exempting Florida from his plan to open practically all of the country’s coastline to offshore drilling. The surprise came only a few days after Zinke rolled out the drilling plan, and immediately after a brief, personal meeting Zinke had in Tallahassee with Florida Gov. Rick Scott, R, a likely GOP Senate candidate who would benefit politically from securing an exemption. Meanwhile, opposition among coastal governors is widespread, with Democrats and Republicans alike objecting that Zinke did not give them overnight, face-to-face service like he did Scott.

In the ensuing weeks, no other state has secured an exemption. Officials in Maryland, Virginia, California, North Carolina and Oregon told us that their governors had recently spoken to Zinke over the phone but not in person. Zinke committed to visiting those states, but officials in North Carolina, California and Oregon confirm that he has made no official visit so far. We asked Zinke’s staff what explains the discrepancy between the treatment of Scott and every other governor, and spokeswoman Heather Swift replied, “Creating a Five Year Program is a very open and public process, and Secretary Zinke looks forward to meeting with Governors and other coastal representatives who want to discuss the draft program.” In other words, Zinke has no reasonable explanation.

It looks as if Zinke gave Florida exclusive attention and a hasty exemption to help Scott in his coming Senate election. Then, because the Trump administration is still committed to a drill-baby-drill policy, the interior secretary subjected every other coastal governor to a longer and less responsive process that may or may not lead to further exemptions.

The alternative explanation is no less damning. Zinke may not have anticipated the blowback that giving Scott extraordinary help would elicit. This includes possibly potent legal objections that the interior secretary’s decision-making was arbitrary and the drilling plan therefore invalid. The firestorm, which a rational deliberative process would have prevented, deterred Zinke from offering any more on-the-spot exemptions.

We have long supported opening more U.S. waters to offshore drilling. As long as the economy requires oil, it must come from somewhere, and better the United States than a country with much weaker environmental oversight. It is arrogant of Americans to benefit from the interconnected global oil market yet insist that their shores remain closed. But Zinke’s own arrogance, at the head of a powerful federal agency, is intolerable. He is not the king of the Interior Department, and the nation’s waters are not spoils he can open or close on a whim. Whether politics or carelessness – or both – drove the Florida exemption fiasco, the rest of the nation’s governors – and its citizens – deserve answers.