Environment

How Trump's Interior Secretary Nominee Would Endanger America's Public Lands and Vulnerable Communities

Like many cabinet nominees, Ryan Zinke is a purveyor of "alternative facts."

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr CC

When Donald Trump nominated Ryan Zinke for Interior Secretary, my first thought was to praise Zinke's military service to our nation. My father was a 20-year Navy veteran who served his country in Vietnam and elsewhere, and I will always have special gratitude for those who answer the call to serve.

I was somewhat hopeful that despite the fact that Trump is stacking his Cabinet with wealthy corporate elites, Zinke—who reportedly is a great admirer of the conservationist president Teddy Roosevelt—would be different. But as I watched his confirmation hearing, my hope to see the nominee commit to protecting our treasured public lands quickly faded. Instead I came away disappointed by Zinke’s reliance on "alternative facts," the unfortunate norm in the young Trump administration. 

For example, Zinke endorsed the alternative fact of a “war on coal,” and pledged to use the powers of the U.S. Department of Interior to revive the fortunes of this lagging fossil fuel. Coal mining on federal lands not only places our lands and waters and wildlife at risk, but coal power plants are the largest drivers of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which scientists confirm is causing catastrophic climate change. 

Coal’s economic fortunes are lagging because it is getting trounced in the marketplace by cheaper and cleaner competitors—led by renewables, natural gas and relentless investment in energy efficiency. Market forces—not regulation—are responsible for coal’s decline.

The steps Zinke implied he’d take to aid coal—revoking the 2016 moratorium on new coal mining on public lands and preserving absurd accounting schemes that allow mining companies to extract coal at below-market prices, thereby robbing taxpayers of our fair share of royalties—can provide only a handful of mining companies with subsidized access to coal, temporarily helping their sagging bottom lines at the expense of increasing threats to our air, water and climate. 

Economic transitions can be devastating to vulnerable populations and wreak havoc on hard-working communities. Politicians representing coal country can either manufacture political boogeymen and promise an era that will never return again, or they can talk about the benefits of a clean energy transition and the tens of thousands of jobs it brings. Instead of extolling the virtues of moribund coal, Zinke should have told the committee how these communities can become the center of wind and solar manufacturing, and businesses and homes can move to installing solar panels on their roofs. That’s the jobs and economic revival rural America needs.

Instead, Zinke sided with the bankrupt coal companies and their monopoly utility allies. Some utilities, with management styles enshrined with state utility commissions, lack the acumen to efficiently respond to changing market dynamics. They remain beholden to outdated supply chains that led them to believe that they must continue to stick with coal, economics be damned. 

Zinke’s testimony doesn’t bode well for those who want public lands safeguarded with sustainable use for explorers and sportsmen alike, and seek prioritization of clean air, drinkable water, species protection, and a future safe from climate change against wasteful coal mining.

What we didn’t hear from Zinke during his confirmation hearing is whether he will lead an Interior Department that prioritizes sustainability and public lands protection, or whether he will kowtow to powerful mining interests that threaten our environment. Let’s hope that for our sake and the sake of future generations, Zinke will start relying on the truth to guide him.

Tyson Slocum is director of Public Citizen's Energy Program and serves on the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s Energy & Environmental Markets Advisory Committee. He teaches energy and climate policy at the University of Maryland Honors College. Follow him on Twitter @TysonSlocum.

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