Emails reveal oil and gas drilling was a key incentive to shrink national monuments

The Department of the Interior focused on the potential for oil and gas exploration at the Bears Ears National Monument during its 2017 review of national monuments. CREDIT: George Frey/Getty Images

From the start of the Trump administration’s review of national monuments, agency officials were directing staff at the U.S. Department of the Interior to figure out how much coal, oil, and natural gas had been placed off limits by the Bears Ears’ National Monument designation.

Environmental activists and public lands advocates feared Trump was pushing to reduce the size of national monuments to give mineral extractive industries easier access to drill or mine in the protected areas. But they didn’t have any evidence or a smoking gun to prove their theory. Now they do.

According to documents obtained by the New York Times, long before Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended a major reduction in the size of the Bears Ears monument in southeastern Utah, the administration was already eyeing the potential for oil and gas exploration at the site.

Last March, an aide to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), asked a senior official at the Department of the Interior to consider reduced boundaries for the Bears Ears monument to remove land from protection that contained oil and natural gas deposits, The New York Times reported Friday.

Hatch’s office sent an email to the Interior Department on March 15, 2017 that included a map depicting a boundary change that would “resolve all known mineral conflicts,” referring to oil and gas sites on the land that the state’s public schools wanted to lease out to increase state funds.

More than 100 years ago, the federal government granted so-called trust lands to support state institutions, like public schools, given that nearly 70 percent of the state is federally controlled land. Bears Ears included about 110,000 acres of these trust lands, eliminating the potential for resource sales, Utah officials said.

John Andrews, associate director of the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which oversees the lands designated for school funding, told The New York Times that the new Bears Ears boundaries approved by Trump reflected his group’s request to exclude its trust lands.

The newspaper obtained emails and other documents about the shrinking of national monuments from the Interior Department after it sued the agency in federal court.

“We’ve long known that Trump and Zinke put polluter profits ahead of our clean air, clean water, public health and coastal economies. This is more proof,” League of Conservation Voters Deputy Legislative Director Alex Taurel said Friday in a statement. “On Zinke’s one year anniversary as secretary, the evidence of just how embedded Trump and Zinke are with the dirty energy of the past could not be clearer.”

The Interior Department had not responded to a request for comment from ThinkProgress on these emails and documents at the time this article was published.

Bears Ears wasn’t the only national monument being evaluated for its potential fossil fuel reserves. In one memo, an Interior official asked department staff to prepare a report on each national monument under review in the United States, with an emphasis on the areas of national monuments with “annual production of coal, oil, gas, and renewable energy sources.”

During his review, Zinke also looked closely at the potential coal reserves at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, also located in Utah.

Interior Department staff developed a series of estimates on the value of coal that could be mined from a section of Grand Staircase-Escalante. When Trump announced in December that he would be reducing Grand Staircase-Escalante to nearly half its original size, those sections with coal reserves were included in the areas that would no longer be protected, according to the New York Times.

The reductions of the two national monuments located in Utah came after an Interior Department review, initiated in April, which looked at all national monuments created since 1996. Trump, at the time, said that the review would put an end to “egregious abuse of federal power” that has resulted in a “massive federal land grab.”

Grand Staircase-Escalante was designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996. Bears Ears was designated by President Barack Obama in December of 2016, as one of his final major designations as president. Environmentalists and indigenous groups have fought for years to protect Bears Ears, arguing that the area holds numerous sites of historical, cultural, and ecological significance.