“The president and myself, we don’t pick winners and losers,” Zinke said last month at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston ― a clear dig at the Obama administration, which Trump and his team have time and again accused of being at “war” with fossil fuels.
At a June 22 budget hearing before the House Committee on Natural Resources, Zinke addressed would-be critics, insisting Trump’s budget proposal “favors an all-of-the-above energy strategy that includes oil, gas, coal and renewable energies.”
David Hayes, the Interior Department’s deputy secretary under President Barack Obama, told HuffPost that Zinke “must have a different definition of ‘all-of-the-above’” ― one that all-but excludes renewables.
Zinke, a House member from Montana before Trump tapped him for his cabinet, “is just singing from the same playbook as the president,” Hayes said. “It’s all about coal, oil and gas. And renewables are in the backseat, if they’re even in the car.”
Indeed, Zinke’s schedule and social media presence since assuming his new post hardly suggest he’s giving everyone a fair shake. He’s met privately with a slew of oil and gas executives, as well as spoken at industry conferences and a trade group’s board meeting. On Twitter, he has posted often about fossil fuels. All this while virtually turning a cold shoulder to solar, wind and other renewables.
“Does anybody really believe the Trump administration isn’t picking winners and losers?” asked Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters. Like others in Trump’s Cabinet, including Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, Zinke has shown “a total pattern of favoring the dirty energy industry over the industries of the future,” Taurel told HuffPost.
Zinke’s office did not respond to HuffPost questions about the apparent one-sided nature of his policies and meetings.
In his first months on the job, Zinke — who environmentalists initially saw as less of a threat than other Cabinet picks — has emerged as yet another industry friend, working to pave a better future for coal, oil and gas.
On March 28, Trump signed an executive order rolling back Obama-era policies aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions. At the signing ceremony, Zinke said, “Our nation can’t run on pixie dust and hope. And the last eight years showed that.”
The very next day, Zinke signed a pair of secretarial orders “to advance American energy independence,” one of which overturned an Obama-era moratorium on new coal leases on federal land — a move that drew immediate legal challenges.
Zinke’s Interior Department also has moved to scrap a hydraulic-fracturing rule meant to better protect public health and is working to rewrite a rule limiting the amount of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, that can be released from oil and gas operations on federal land.
The former Navy SEAL praised Trump for signing an executive order to expand offshore drilling and open up now-protected areas of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans to oil and gas development. And Zinke signed a secretarial order May 31 to “jump-start” oil production in Alaska, including in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge.
When Trump announced on June 1 that he would pull the U.S. out of the historic Paris Agreement ― the international accord to cut carbon emissions to ward off the worst effects of global climate change ― Zinke applauded what he called “bold and decisive action” by the president to get America out of a “poorly-negotiated” deal that “would kill American jobs and manufacturing while doing little to protect the environment.”
On Twitter, Zinke shared pictures of his visit to a coal seam in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Another post featured himself and Vice President Mike Pence’s at Montana’s Crow Indian Reservation, where Zinke reported that Pence delivered this message: “THE WAR ON COAL IS OVER.” Still another post showed him and several others, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), standing alongside the Trans Alaska Pipeline.
Equally as lopsided have been Zinke’s personal meetings. According to logs for his March and April schedules, he had at least seven sessions with oil and gas interests, including representatives of ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP America, Dominion Resources Inc. and WPX Energy, as well as industry trade groups Domestic Energy Producers Alliance and Western Energy Alliance. On March 23, Zinke addressed the American Petroleum Institute, another oil and gas trade group, at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, which has been at the center of conflict-of-interest concerns.
It does not appear Zinke had a single meeting with a representative of the renewable energy sector during March or April.
In defending the Trump administration’s push for increase fossil fuel production, Zinke has compared oil drilling to hunting and fishing. He has also said natural areas can actually benefit from the extraction of oil, gas and minerals.
“We can responsibly develop our energy resources and return the land to equal or better quality than it was before extraction,” he wrote in a May op-ed for the conservative Washington Times.
Zinke hasn’t ignored renewables entirely. But his comments about wind and solar energy hardly signal neutrality. Asked in a March interview with Fox News Radio’s Kilmeade & Friends about lifting the coal moratorium, Zinke said, “There’s no such thing as clean energy. Even wind comes at a cost if you want to talk about migratory birds,” referring to birds being hit and killed by spinning turbines.
At a U.S. Chamber of Commerce forum last week, Zinke dismissed the possibility of replacing coal, which in 2016 was the source of roughly 30 percent of U.S. energy generation, with wind or solar energy.
“Wind chops up around 650- or 750,000 birds a year,” Zinke said. “Wind comes at a cost.”
The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, in California’s Mojave Desert, “looks like a scene from Mad Max” and “creates a sphere of death” for birds and insects, he said. And fishermen aren’t “particularly enamored” with offshore wind facilities that prevents them “from fishing, which is an important part of our economy,” he said.
Hayes said Zinke’s comments about wind energy show the administration’s “true colors.”
The Trump administration’s favoritism for oil and gas was a conversation point during last week’s budget hearings.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) addressed the administration’s push for increased offshore development, telling Zinke he’d be wasting time and money to try to drill off the California coast.
“The people of California are simply not going to allow it to happen,” Huffman said at the June 22 session. “In fact, our state wants to remove the existing oil and gas rigs in our waters. We are looking forward to the development of offshore renewable energy. And we’re not happy about backwards steps.”
Zinke has stressed that the Trump administration’s proposal “is what a balanced budget looks like.” But Huffman argued it’s not what a balanced budget has to look like.
“You’ve chosen to balance the budget with some winners and losers. On the losing side we see cuts to renewable energy, climate change, [Endangered Species Act] implementation, abandoned mine remediation, environmental health, science, national wildlife refuges … It goes on,” Huffman said. “On the winning side we see more exploration, drilling, mining, etc. Is there any sacrifice for the fossil fuel industry in your budget?”
Zinke dodged the question, saying simply that Congress has a say in budgetary spending and “that’s why I’m here.”
As head of Interior, Zinke is responsible for managing 500 million acres of federal land ― roughly one-fifth of the United States — including 59 national parks. That involves both preserving and protecting public lands for future generations and setting the polices that govern extracting natural resources from some of those areas.
Hayes said Trump and Zinke’s fossil fuel-heavy approach “stands in contrast to the equal weight” the Obama administration put on opening public land to renewable energy, including utility-scale solar projects in the Southwest and offshore wind energy in the Atlantic.
“The renewable resources on our public lands and offshore waters are phenomenal, world-class,” Hayes said. He decried “hearing not a peep from the administration about those, while from the budget to the rule-making to everything else,” it is favoring the coal and oil and gas sectors.
In a move seen as further solidifying the already strong ties between the Trump administration and the oil and gas industry, the American Petroleum Institute earlier this month hired Megan Barnett Bloomgren ― who had been Zinke’s acting deputy chief of staff at Interior ― as its new vice president for communications.
Zinke’s links to the oil and gas industry include more than $350,000 in campaign contributions he received from it since 2013, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets.org. He first won his House seat in 2014 and was re-elected last November.
As a lawmaker, he earned himself a 4 percent score in the League of Conservation Voters’ rating of his votes on issues important to the group.
“He likes to cultivate this image of being more moderate,” said Taurel, the league’s deputy legislative director. “But he’s put his thumb on the scales for fossil fuels in a big way early in his tenure” at Interior.
This week has been designated “Energy Week” by the White House, aimed at demonstrating Trump’s commitment “to utilizing our abundant domestic energy resources both to create jobs and a growing, prosperous economy at home, and to strengthen America’s global influence and leadership abroad,” according to a White House spokeswoman.
Scheduled events include an “American Energy Dominance Panel” on Thursday at the Energy Department’s headquarters, featuring Trump, Zinke, Pruitt and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Following the panel, the president is to give a speech on the “dominance″ theme.
So far, no event focused on renewable energy has been publicized by the White House.