As the Trump transition shifts into high gear, things are not looking good for the Department of the Interior, which means things are not looking good for the environment.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) is one potential candidate for Secretary of the Interior. She met with President-elect Donald Trump on Monday in New York.
In a sea of Trump-allied fossil fuel supporters, Fallin stands out as a particularly pro-oil type. Among environmental and climate change policy-watchers, she’s probably most famous for suggesting that Oklahomans pray for the oil industry and for avoiding the fact that the oil industry was responsible for her state being besieged by fracking-related earthquakes. At one point, Fallin spokesperson called it “awkward” that the oil industry was to blame. She also signed a bill banning local governments from restricting oil and gas drilling.
Numerous Oklahoma outlets have blamed the governor for failing to address the causal relationship between oil extraction and earthquakes. (For what it’s worth, fracking itself — when high volumes of water are injected into shale gas to release oil and gas deposits miles underground — is not what most seismologists agree causes the earthquakes. The process creates huge amounts of wastewater, which is injected underground for storage. The pressure from the wastewater injections is believed to trigger earthquakes.)
Another candidate for the position, Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) has a stunningly low lifetime environmental record score of 5 percent from League of Conservation Voters. Lummis is reportedly meeting with the president-elect Tuesday.
This is a woman who, along with many of her Republican colleagues, voted to block any efforts to increase the amount taxpayers are compensated for oil drilling on public land. In 2014, she voted for a bill that would have “could allow the use of motorized vehicles, road construction, and other forms of development within protected wilderness areas, and [blocked] input from public stakeholders in National Wildlife Refuge management decisions.”
Those votes do not portend a strong position of protecting public lands or even getting fair market value for their extractive possibilities.
Other candidates for the position reportedly include former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK); former Gov. Jan Brewer (R-AZ); Harold Hamm, an Oklahoma billionaire; and Forrest Lucas, an oil executive.
For most Americans, it’s probably worth taking a moment to consider what the Interior Department has dominion over.
The department is best known for managing the country’s national parks. In fact, it manages all of the publicly owned land in the United States and is intricately involved in the country’s fossil fuel development. Roughly 30 percent of U.S. annual energy production comes from publicly owned land, which means that “taxpayer-owned gas, oil, and coal extracted from federal lands and waters by private companies are one of the nation’s most significant sources of GHG emissions, accounting for more than one-fifth of all U.S. GHG emissions,” according to the Center for American Progress.
The Interior Department oversees all of that. It also contains the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey. (The latter agency is responsible for tracking the fracking-related earthquakes mentioned above.)
Under the Obama administration, the department has maintained oil and gas leasing on public lands and in the Gulf of Mexico, allowed oil leasing in the Arctic, and toyed with allowing drilling in the Atlantic, off the southeastern states. But Obama has also presided over a huge preservation movement, dedicating millions of acres as national monuments. He also rolled out new rules for fracking on public lands and launched the first review of the country’s coal leasing and revenue program in decades.
In January, Obama announced that there would be no new coal leases on public lands.
Tellingly, perhaps, the current Secretary of the Interior is Sally Jewell, a former executive at REI, the outdoor recreation outfitter. Her appointment emphasized the Obama administration’s attempts to prioritize preservation — and to recognize the economic as well as environmental benefits of keeping U.S. lands pristine.
That does not seem to be the approach of the Trump administration, given both the names floated for secretary and the transition team itself, which is being led by Doug Domenech.
Domenech is a former deputy chief of staff at the department and a former Virginia secretary of natural resources. Most recently, Domenech has directed the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Fueling Freedom Project, whose stated mission is to explain the “forgotten moral case for fossil fuels.”
The organization is funded in part by both the Koch Family Foundation and Koch Industries. Domenech has said that Trump’s plans to “open federal lands” for coal, oil, and gas production and rescind the coal lease moratorium will “reinvigorate communities across the nation.”
Domenech has also downplayed the seriousness of climate change, calling it the “view” of “keep it in the ground” extremists.
But even putting aside the risks presented by climate change — risks we have seen in the past years, including increased flooding, drought, and heat waves, all which take real toll on human life — fossil fuels would still be responsible for a massive amount of pollution, death, and environmental destruction.
No one is arguing that the advent of combustion engines and electricity haven’t reaped huge benefits for humanity. In fact, the ability to harness and direct power has been the defining measure of modern life. But with other resources available — distributed solar generation, solar thermal heat, wind turbines — it no longer makes sense to invest in fossil fuels, especially in areas that are working from a clean (pun intended) slate.
A new secretary could rescind the moratorium on new coal leases, end the review of the coal program, and restart the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s five-year plan process to include the Arctic and the Atlantic for drilling.
During the campaign, Trump repeatedly said that extracting fossil fuels from public lands and waters would be a priority for his administration.