This week, in partnership with the Guardian, Pacific Standard published a sweeping story detailing writer Jimmy Tobias’ findings from a trove of Department of Interior (DOI) documents. The hundreds of pages of correspondence and calendars that Tobias reviewed reveal the extent to which top officials at the DOI have prioritized extractive industry interests over conservation.
Since the beginning of his tenure, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has made headlines for what Tobias describes as his “flair for ostentation.” Zinke arrived on horseback for his first day on the job in Washington, D.C. He commissioned commemorative coins bearing his name. He started flying a special flag above DOI headquarters. But as Tobias shows, beyond a veneer of flamboyant behavior, Zinke has much more ambitious—and damaging—plans in mind: remaking the department that manages over five million acres of public lands in the image of the Trump administration.
Here are five key takeaways from Tobias’ reporting.
Zinke’s DOI Has Close Ties to the Extractive Industries
The department has a clear pro-industry agenda, according to documents Tobias obtained, and is working to further the Trump administration’s “America first energy plan.”
Not only did Zinke himself meet repeatedly with oil and gas industry organizations during his first year and a half as secretary, but during that time, extractive interests had more than twice as much access to top DOI deputies as conservation organizations did: Seven of Zinke’s high-level appointees participated in at least 280 meetings or calls with fossil fuel corporations, mining companies, or related groups, versus roughly 115 meetings or calls with conservation non-governmental organizations.
The Department Is Prioritizing Economics Over the Environment
Last December, at a private energy summit, Zinke appointee Timothy Williams made remarks in which he clearly spelled out the department’s agenda. Reported for the first time by Tobias, documentation of the remarks shows that Williams dismissed the Obama-era approach of assessing the carbon footprint and social cost of potential activities on public lands. Under Zinke, Williams reportedly said, the DOI would not be doing that, and would instead focus on “economic impacts.”
DOI Officials’ Extractive Industry Relationships Appear to Violate Conflict of Interest Rules
The Trump administration’s own rules prohibit officials from having meetings with former employers for two years from the start of their appointment. But several of Zinke’s top officials have continued to have such meetings, including with Koch-linked foundations such as Americans for Prosperity and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Former Employees Are Embarrassed By Zinke’s Behavior—and Fearful for the Future
“There was a lot of eye-rolling and embarrassment about the flag and the horse and all of the ridiculousness,” one former senior employee told Tobias. But more importantly, former staffers pointed to fears over the dramatic changes that have taken place at the policy level, where the focus has been on dismantling and weakening environmental regulations and protections, including rolling back a methane capture rule and working against protections for the greater sage grouse.
Though Concerning, Zinke’s Ethics Violations Are a Distraction
Zinke has been the subject of at least 15 investigations into his conduct, one of which was referred to the Department of Justice late last month—meaning that Zinke may have been involved in a criminal violation. Among other allegations, Zinke is accused of engaging in a Montana land deal with the chairman of Halliburton, a global oil service company.
While ethics scandals make for sensational headlines, Tobias’ story shows the bigger reasons that conservation groups are keeping a watchful eye on the top brass at the DOI: Zinke is steering the department toward looser environmental regulations and greater industry influence. Even if Zinke himself steps down, his pro-fossil fuel agenda and the conflicts of interest plaguing his team will likely live on.