Throughout Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and after his election victory, lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry felt confident the new president would be on their side. Given his penchant for unpredictability, though, industry officials still needed to see the new president in action before they gave him their official seal of approval.
So far, Trump is passing with flying colors. The degree to which the Trump administration has pushed to reverse regulations on the oil, gas, and coal sectors has shocked even the most optimistic in the industry, according to a new report issued by the Center for Western Priorities.
“In the nine months since President Trump took office, the Department of the Interior has transformed from an agency balancing multiple uses on our public lands — leasing some lands for development while conserving others for future generations — to a rubber stamp for the oil, gas, and coal industries,” the Center for Western Priorities writes in the report. “To date, nearly all of the policy recommendations identified by energy interests have been acted on in some form.”
Along with gutting important regulations, the Trump administration has filled key positions inside the Department of the Interior with fossil-fuel industry players. The report, released Thursday, cites Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas trade association. Sgamma remarked a few months ago: “Not in our wildest dreams, never did we expect to get everything. We were kind of used to getting punished.”
The Center for Western Priorities borrowed Sgamma’s exuberant statement for the title of its report, “Not In Their Wildest Dreams: The Trump Administration Is Granting Energy Industry Wishes at a Breakneck Pace.” In the report, the Denver-based nonprofit conservation and environmental advocacy group identifies 24 policy changes within the jurisdiction of the Interior Department favored by oil, gas, and coal industry interests. The researchers then assessed whether the supported action was complete, in progress, identified for administrative or Congressional action, or not started.
The group’s release of its “Wildest Dreams” report comes only days after Trump granted his mining and energy industry supporters one key wish: shrinking or eliminating national monuments.
“From rules that were supposed to ensure taxpayers got a fair share from publicly-owned oil and gas to policies designed to give local voices input regarding energy production in their hometowns, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and President Trump have shown their only interest is helping the special interests that finance their political careers,” Jennifer Rokala, executive director at the Center for Western Priorities, said in a Thursday statement.
Along with reducing the size of two national monuments in Utah, other completed actions include:
- Elimination of the rule ensuring taxpayers get a fair share for coal, oil, and gas extracted from public lands.
- Lifting the coal moratorium, a temporary pause in leasing to study the impacts on taxpayers and the environment.
- Elimination of land use planning process that incorporates more local input.
In response to Zinke’s elimination of the Office of Natural Resources Revenue valuation rule, Jesse Prentice-Dunn, advocacy director of the center, said, “There’s no legitimate reason to eliminate a rule like that unless your priority is to help coal, oil, and gas companies rip off taxpayers.”
The Interior Department is also attacking Bureau of Land Management rules aimed at reducing methane waste from oil and gas drilling on public lands — that effort is classified as “in progress.” The BLM methane waste rule required drillers to find and plug leaks of natural gas. The rule also would ensure taxpayers receive a fair share for publicly owned resources. However, the Independent Petroleum Association of America and the Western Energy Alliance sued to overturn the rule. With that litigation still pending, the BLM announced in October it would suspend the methane waste rule, a first step toward eliminating it entirely.
During his first two months in office, Zinke met with executives from nearly two dozen oil and gas organizations, including the American Petroleum Institute, Western Energy Alliance, ExxonMobil, BP America, and Chevron. One of the most controversial cabinet officials in the administration, the former Montana congressman is facing an investigation into his spending habits, as well as a separate investigation opened by Interior Department’s inspector general.
Zinke isn’t the only Interior official that critics complain is doing the bidding of the energy industry. Many of his top lieutenants in the department are closely connected to the energy and mineral extraction industries. The Center for Western Priorities looked at 76 political staffers who have worked under Zinke at Interior since the beginning of the Trump administration and found that at least 34 — nearly 50 percent of all political appointees — have direct ties to oil, gas, coal, or other extractive industry interests.
Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, the number two at Interior, is referred to as a “walking conflict of interest” based on his long career as a lobbyist and lawyer representing oil, gas, and mining companies, according to the report. Kathy Benedetto, a senior adviser to the Bureau of Land Management, worked in the mining and energy industry for two decades. Heather Swift, the Interior press secretary, has worked for multiple public affairs and lobbying companies representing oil, gas, and coal interests.
The report notes that the Trump administration does not have the authority to fulfill some of the items on its wish list. However, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) is trying to help out. He introduced a bill to gut the Antiquities Act, preventing future designations of national monuments, which is one of the top goals of the Western Energy Alliance.
On Monday, based on Zinke’s recommendation, Trump issued two proclamations eliminating more than 2 million acres from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national Monuments in Utah. The proclamations serve as “a clear giveaway to coal and uranium interests that lobbied to undo the conservation legacies of Presidents Obama and Clinton,” the report says.