During His Time As Interior Secretary, Zinke Advanced 'Energy Dominance'
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
And now to the Department of the Interior. President Trump says he plans to name a new interior secretary this week. On Saturday, the president tweeted that Ryan Zinke would leave the post by the end of the year.
Zinke has faced mounting pressure from allegations of misconduct while in office, but he's also been one of the administration's most high-profile leaders, advancing an agenda of energy dominance.
NPR's environment reporter Nathan Rott joins us to look back on Zinke's tenure. Hey, Nate.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: So Zinke is someone who's made headlines from his first day in office - right? - like when he showed up at the department on horseback, complete with a cowboy hat and boots, which was a nice touch?
And at the time, he promised to model himself after Teddy Roosevelt, who was famous for, among other things, being a passionate conservationist. What do you think? Is Zinke leaving behind a legacy that's in the mold of T.R.?
ROTT: In a word, I would say, no.
ROTT: To be fair, it would be hard for anyone to match Roosevelt's conservation legacy. I mean, he set aside hundreds of millions of acres of land for future generations. Zinke went the opposite way, reducing protections on millions of acres of land by shrinking national monuments, opening up the coastlines and vast areas of the West to oil and gas leasing.
I talked to Land Tawney, the head of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, earlier. His group supported Zinke's nomination, but he says there was no hint of Roosevelt in any of the actions Zinke took while in office.
LAND TAWNEY: You know, I think throughout his tenure as secretary, you know, it became more and more apparent that, you know, he had kind of lost his Montana roots and was really trying to appease or please big industry. And big industry really took over the interior. And we have a lot of things to show of it.
CHANG: What does he mean by that? Is he talking about energy producers on public lands?
ROTT: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, oil, gas, coal - extractive industries. I mean, the Trump industry - the Trump administration has been pretty direct about how they feel about energy production on public lands. They want to maximize it. America energy, first energy, dominance - those are the catchphrases they use.
And their actions are having an impact. The oil and gas industry is booming right now, largely because of the bigger energy market and the price of oil and gas, but also because of some of those policy changes. Here's Kathleen Sgamma, head of the Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based oil and gas trade group.
KATHLEEN SGAMMA: I do think some of these policies are enabling companies to have more confidence that, if they do move forward and acquire a lease on federal lands, that they will actually be able to develop on federal lands. And that was not the case during the Obama administration.
ROTT: Sgamma also said that she expects that to remain the case with whoever replaces Zinke, as well.
CHANG: Well, what do we know about Zinke's replacement, David Bernhardt, the No. 2 at the agency? He's the one expected - right? - to be named the interim secretary.
ROTT: Yeah, and there's a chance that he'll be the long-term replacement for Zinke, too. Bernhardt is a former oil and gas lobbyist. He worked at Interior under George W. Bush, and he's played a big role in pushing some of the pro-energy policy changes we've seen at the agency. So he'd be a natural fit for what Trump wants to do.
But like anything, it's anyone's guess at this point who the nominee will be. Regardless of who, I think it is fair to say, though, that the direction will stay the same.
CHANG: OK. Now a big reason for Zinke's departure, we mentioned, are allegations of misconduct while he was in office. Remind us what is being investigated. And what happens to those investigations after he steps down?
ROTT: Right. So there's a long list of alleged ethical missteps, ranging from Zinke's use of taxpayer money to his policy decisions to possible conflicts of interest. Some of those investigations have been closed, either because they found no wrongdoing or because Zinke just refused to cooperate.
Others remain, though, and it's unclear what will happen with them - most notably, a real estate deal involving Zinke and the chairman of the oil and gas giant Halliburton. Interior's inspector general office says it can't comment on ongoing investigations. In terms of Congress, I don't expect Democrats to cut him any slack.
CHANG: All right. That's NPR environment reporter Nathan Rott. Thanks, Nate.
ROTT: Yeah, thank you.
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