Public lands belong to the public, and as such, they should be used for the financial value of their oil, gas and timber, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told the Western Conservative Summit.
“Our great lands, our treasures, belong to us,” he said, speaking Friday on the opening night of what is billed as the largest gathering of conservatives outside of Washington, D.C. “The difference in the Trump administration is this: Believe it or not, I work for you. Interior should be the trusted steward. We should be the nice department, the department that says yes.”
Zinke’s stance marks a departure from the Department of Interior under President Barack Obama, which canceled oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area of Western Colorado in response to pressure from environmental groups. His comments to the Western Conservative Summit echoed those he made last month to the Western Governors’ Association.
In the debate over public lands, there are those who want to see federal lands transferred to state control or even privatized, with the most extreme elements of that movement represented by the people who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. And there are those who place a high value on environmental protection and think the federal government is in the best position to do that. Then there are those who want to see federal control continue but with a much more open attitude toward oil and gas drilling and other extractive industries like logging.
Zinke, a former representative from Montana, falls into the latter camp, and “keeping public lands public” means something very different to him than it does to environmentalists. To be clear, drilling and logging occurred on public lands under Obama, and the issues are: with what restrictions, at what cost and on which lands.
“I don’t believe that our public lands should be sold or traded or transferred, but we should use our public lands for the benefit of all Americans,” Zinke said. “It is better to produce energy here under reasonable regulations than to produce it overseas. If you want to see environmental catastrophe, I would invite you to look overseas at Saudi Arabia or the Middle East or Africa. America should never produce energy in this way.”
Zinke argued that opening more lands to oil and gas drilling was the moral thing to do, a way to generate much needed revenue for the government and provide jobs in rural communities.
“If you go back to 2008, Interior was the No. 2 revenue generator in our country, right behind our friends at the IRS,” he said. “In offshore alone, Interior made about $18 billion. That’s a lot of money.
“Last year we made $2.6 billion. We lost $15 billion in revenue a year. When I came in — and everyone loves our parks — our parks are about $11.5 billion behind in maintenance and repairs overall and Interior that protects our lands and our wildlife refuges, we’re about $15 billion a year behind. In scale, we would have addressed our entire backlog of maintenance and repair and been able to deliver $3 billion in additional investment.”
“That’s the consequence of putting 94 percent of our offshore offlimits, that’s the consequence of not harvesting trees on our public lands that’s the consequence of locking and shutting American energy and access and recreation from our lands,” he continued. “The war on American energy is over.”
Restrictions on drilling activity have been just one factor in declining revenues from a complicated industry. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that revenues from offshore and onshore oil and gas activities grew from 2010 to 2013 when oil prices were high but then declined significantly in the next three years. Revenues in 2016 were the lowest since 2004.
The question of how much revenue offshore drilling could generate and whether it would allow us to be energy independent is a complicated one. Scientific American looked at this question in detail when it came up in the 2008 presidential campaign (remember “Drill, baby, drill!”). Oil companies make decisions about investing in new sites in the context of global markets and prices, and some offshore sites are much more expensive to develop than others. In other cases, sites that seem promising turn out not to be as productive as hoped.
A slew of companies abandoned leases in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska last year as “not competitive” even before President Barack Obama announced new restrictions on Arctic drilling. In some cases, they cited uncertainty about changing federal regulations, but they also said exploratory drilling yielded disappointing results.
The question in Western states like Colorado is not necessarily whether to use public lands for economic benefit but how. A recent study found that in the Intermountain West, consumers spend $104.5 billion a year on outdoor recreation, which relies heavily on access to public lands. That spending in turn supports 925,000 jobs that generate $7.7 billion in federal taxes and $7.2 billion in state and local taxes. U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner was a main sponsor of a bill that passed the Senate unanimously last year that calls for outdoor recreation to be incorporated into the nation’s gross domestic product.
Conservation groups have seized on outdoor recreation as an ally in limiting more intensive uses and sometimes found support even among Republican legislators.
When Trump signed an executive order in April that is expected to lead to more offshore drilling activity, Sen. Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican, introduced a bill suspending drilling on the East Coast for 10 years in the interest of protecting his state’s shoreline for tourism.
That executive order doesn’t actually authorize drilling activity but instead directs Zinke to conduct a review of plans and regulations. Zinke’s public remarks since then, including to the Western Conservative Summit, indicate he’ll be doing that review with a fairly friendly eye toward extractive industries.
Speaking to an overwhelmingly Christian audience, Zinke placed the use of natural resources in a religious light. He said that as a geologist, he once believed we would have already run out of fossil fuels by now.
“God’s got a sense of humor, he gave us fracking,” Zinke said to laughter and applause. “Fracking has made a difference because we don’t have to be held hostage to foreign entities in our energy.”
Zinke, a former Navy SEAL who served in Iraq, said drilling now could protect future generations from fighting wars abroad.
“I can tell you in my heart I never want to see your children and my grandchildren see what I’m seeing,” he said. “I fought in a lot of countries. I never want to see your children have to go to war over resources we have here.”
“Our grandchildren are being harmed by you,” a protester yelled at this point.
“Isn’t this great?” Zinke asked the crowd, as people took up a chant of “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
“We won,” Zinke said as the woman was led out of the room by security. “We won.”