Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Tough Second Act

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke addresses reporters in Salt Lake City, February 2018 (Keith Schneider photo)

SALT LAKE CITY — January was supposed to be a great month for Interior Secretary Ryan Keith Zinke, the tall, cowboy-fit, decorated SEAL warrior dispatched by the White House to battle the “elites” and elevate resource development to the primary goal of the world’s largest conservation agency.

Guided by his personal hero, Teddy Roosevelt, who once said “conservation means development as much as it does protection,” Zinke opened the year with the most ambitious federal plan ever to explore for oil and gas off nearly every mile of U.S. coastline. Ten months in the making, the drilling scheme was the latest of the administration’s coordinated steps to sweep away decades of environmental impediments and unleash the fossil energy reserves stored beneath much of the 1.7 billion acres of ocean bottom and at least half of the 500 million acres of surface land overseen by the 168-year-old department.

The bid to decorate America’s coast with drilling rigs was bigger than even the ocean leasing program proposed in 1982 by James Watt, the last Interior secretary to try as hard as Zinke to swing the department’s mission from conservation to extraction. “We’re embarking on a new path for energy dominance in America,” Zinke declared. “We are going to become the strongest energy superpower.”

But five days later, like the unpredictable president he serves, Zinke disrupted the show. During a trip to meet with Rick Scott, the Florida Republican governor and likely Senate candidate, Zinke announced he was excusing the offshore waters of the Sunshine State from participation. The drilling waiver, which shocked his own staff, ignited an impassioned political backlash led by Republican coastal state governors, Congress members, and state lawmakers. It also put the entire plan in grave legal peril because at the very least the federal Administrative Procedure Act requires a substantive and rational basis for making new policy.

The public dismay grew more intense two weeks later when a senior Interior executive rebuked his boss and told a Congressional committee that Zinke’s waiver had no authority. Florida, he said, was still in the offshore drilling plan. As the month ended, Zinke appeared on CNN to counter his aide and explain that the exemption stood because, in Florida, “the coastal currents are different.”

It is not clear why Zinke apparently set out on his own to alter the Trump administration’s marquee energy development plan. Heather Swift, Zinke’s spokesperson, declined repeated requests to interview the secretary or members of his senior staff. “The secretary is unavailable,” she said during Zinke’s appearance at a hunter and sportsmen expo in Salt Lake City.

Ryan Zinke’s effort to expand oil and gas leasing in the West’s public lands is not attracting much interest across most of the domain. (Keith Schneider photo)

Whatever the cause, Zinke’s change of heart about Florida raised eyebrows across official Washington. “It was different, to be sure,” said Idaho Republican Representative Mike Simpson.
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The White House Wants To Disrupt Elko County and a Whole Lot of Other Places in the West

The Ruby Mountains in Elko County, northeast Nevada. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

ELKO, NEV. – From this rest stop desert city midway between Salt Lake City and Reno the snow peaks of the Ruby Mountains are like finely crafted wainscoting in an elegant ballroom. The slopes rise sharply to form triangles in the sky. In 1989, Congress approved permanently safeguarding 92,650 wooded acres along the ridge lines from any intrusions in the Ruby Mountain Wilderness. The big flat sagebrush valley that runs up to the base of the mountains’ western flank is open range for grazing, and hunting ground for golden eagles. The watery meadows on the eastern flank are nesting sites for migrating birds. Since 1938, 37,632 acres of it have been protected as the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Elko is an intriguing place. It’s the biggest city in the nation’s sixth largest county and has a nationally-recognized cowboy poetry festival every winter. Elko also has understood since its founding as a railroad stop in 1869 the economic value of extracting resources from the land and conserving the natural geography. The county is home to one of the largest gold mining sectors in the United States. Elko County, where about 50,000 people live, was hardly scratched in the 2008 to 2012 Great Recession because Americans got so freaked out that the price of gold climbed to $2,000 an ounce.

Lately, though, residents in Elko County have been stirred up by a plan, hatched in the Trump White House, to disrupt the decades-long equilibrium they’ve achieved between extraction and conservation. In the last week of December I drove out to Elko from my base in Salt Lake City to take a tour of the Ruby Mountains and see what’s going on. Since early October I’ve been based in Utah’s capital city to report for the Los Angeles Times as the western environment and public lands correspondent. My contract ends in early March. Until then I’ve got time and room to roam to tell a momentous story of an administration’s pursuit of an economic and energy development story in the West that does not fit its time. (Read my reports here.)

The Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1938, sits in a valley on the east side of the Ruby Mountains. (Photo/Keith Schneider

The powerful tide of that story washed into Elko County in September when residents learned that the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the Ruby Mountains, is preparing to auction leases for oil and gas development on some 50,000 acres of public land that border the wilderness on the western flanks, and the wildlife refuge on the east. The Bureau of Land Management, the Interior Department agency that owns and manages most of the public land in the West, also is preparing an oil and gas lease auction for hundreds of thousands of acres of public desert land in the western reaches of the county. Continue reading “The White House Wants To Disrupt Elko County and a Whole Lot of Other Places in the West”

The Year Public Pressure Influenced Lending Practices

Development banks around the world face increasing public pressure as their lending practices support eco-damaging projects.
Development banks around the world face increasing public pressure as their lending practices support eco-damaging projects.

SOMERSET, KY — Rex Tillerson, the chairman of ExxonMobil, asked by president-elect Donald Trump to serve as secretary of state. Scott Pruitt, the climate-denying, energy-financed attorney general of Oklahoma, nominated for EPA administrator. Rick Perry, former governor of Texas and a board member of Energy Transfer Partners (developer of the Dakota Access Pipeline), nominated to oversee the Energy Department.

The intent in Trump’s brotherhood of black fuels is clear enough — stabilize erratic global markets, push energy prices up, recover assets that were on the way to being stranded, and cash flow again on producing expensive oil, coal, and natural gas.

Ample fossil energy supplies and favorable prices serve as the two central themes of Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again.” In service to that goal Trump invited Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, to sit as a sort of cabinet member ex-officio. The Koch brothers, along with the executives of most every other American fossil energy company, cheer from the bench.

Americans of clear mind and useful values are demonstrably nervous. The White House and the executive offices of the world’s fossil fuel companies are powerful forums to exert influence. Can Trump and his fossil fuel allies succeed? Of course they can. I do not, however, believe they will.

I’ve reported extensively since visiting the Indian Himalayas in 2013 on the more powerful global trends that not only are impeding conventional energy development, they have initiated a sweeping transition in production practices, technology, and use. Coal production and consumption is falling in China. The Philippines is closing damaging mines. Civic rebellion is blocking new coal-fired power plants in Bangladesh, and impeding development of oil and natural gas pipelines in the United States.

Solar and wind generating technology is now cheaper than new coal-fired power generation and comparable in cost to natural gas-fueled generation. India is abandoning its mega power program to build mammoth 4,000-megawatt coal-fired power plants. Instead it is pursuing new solar and wind generating installations. South Africa has developed one of the world’s successful clean energy development programs.

Floods, droughts, earthquakes, and fire are causing havoc in the world’s fossil energy regions. And the costs of developing all of the fossil fuels is rising as prices for alternatives drop.

It is these trends that are stranding billions of dollars of resource assets around the world and causing a growing panic in the halls of government, boardrooms, and executive suites. And none are likely to be slowed.

This year, during seven weeks of reporting in South Africa, I learned about another new and powerful trend that is reshaping markets around the world — the pressure that communities and a select group of investigative groups are putting on the world’s big banks to change their lending practices.

The headwinds of transition are whipping through the energy sector. The Trump administration’s effort to stabilize oil prices confronts the elements of the rugged weather — erratic markets, new transportation and efficiency technology, and rapidly rising production costs. He may try to suspend NEPA requirements on big projects. He also could try to withdraw non-profit status from important NGOs, a tactic developed in other nations. But the American president-elect and his allies face powerful civic opposition around the world and in the red rural counties that voted for him. Here in Kentucky, I wrote about a big fight over a natural gas pipeline. Continue reading “The Year Public Pressure Influenced Lending Practices”

Do Republicans Hate Cities? Generally Yes

Grand Central Station on 42nd Street is a hive of energy every day using a transport technology that Republicans don't support. Photo/Keith Schneider
Grand Central Station on 42nd Street is a hive of energy every day using a transport technology that Republicans don’t support. Photo/Keith Schneider

NEW YORK — In the evenings the sidewalks along First Avenue, between 10th and Houston Streets, are a jammed bustle of young people crowded into bars, lined up for tables at good restaurants, or walking fast with heads bowed and faces lit by incoming smart phone texts.

First Avenue, like so many other neighborhoods in New York, is a tableau of urban revival, an example of what happens when smart investments and informed entrepreneurism foster economic and environmental transition. New York City, you may recall, was in such dire shape in the 1970s and 1980s that crime ruled the streets, fiscal collapse was ever-present, and people and companies left in droves. First Avenue in those days was dirty, dark, and dangerous.

New York is not that place anymore, and hasn’t been since the start of the century. New York is an engine of growth and job opportunities, a city with clean air, ample and safe parks, improving water quality, slim people, improving schools, and an attitude of confidence and hope. In all of these attributes New York also resembles Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Washington, Denver, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Boise, Dallas, Charleston, Cincinnati and most other major American metropolitan regions.

In each of these cities job growth is climbing rapidly, crime is stable or declining, unemployment rates are lower than the state at large, and real estate values are heading up, in many instances swiftly. In other measures American cities are a study in improving social conditions and prosperity. Wages are rising. Young adults attend college and are getting married. And, just as First Avenue’s businesses and watering holes are busy with customers, so too are the mercantile streets of big cities across the country.

Oh! There’s one more distinction. American cities are overwhelmingly filled with adults who support Democrats for state and national offices. They are also filled with adults who not only generally believe that the rest of America is getting along better like they are, they have just the scantest idea of the depth of the dismay, the anger, the resentment that people in the far suburbs and rural regions have for cities and their residents.

The High Line, an elevated park in New York built with public and private funds on an old rail service train line. Photo/Keith Schneider
The High Line, an elevated park in New York built with public and private funds on an old rail service train line. Photo/Keith Schneider

Those divisions now express themselves in dangerous ideas harbored in the Republican party about limiting state and federal investments in transit, education, streets, law enforcement, housing, business loans, and environmental safeguards. But even as they support a risky agenda of tax-cutting and smaller government, many of those very same voters and their families have also chosen you’re-on-your-own results — limited job opportunities, low wages, and hardship.

Nonmetro and metro quarterly employment indices
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Peru’s Recession and Insurgency Revives Its Democracy; Example For the U.S.?

More than 5,000 campesinos from the Andes march in a show of unity in Cajamarca, Peru. Photo/Keith Schneider
More than 5,000 campesinos from the Andes march in a show of unity in Cajamarca, Peru. Photo/Keith Schneider

CAJAMARCA, Peru – North of Lima, 350 miles, this regional capital is spread across a high mountain valley near the northern terminus of the Andes Mountains. Spanish conquistadors began their conquest of Latin America here in the early 16th century when they murdered the last Incan emperor. The room where the Incan chief is said to have spent his last days is a half-block from Cajamarca’s central square. Roman Catholic cathedrals flank the southern and northern boundaries of the square, which is alive with strollers and skateboarders and people warming themselves in a bright winter sun.

The scene of order that greets visitors, the clean streets and the shops that stay open well past sunset, is a display of order that while not new isn’t all that old either. In the 1980s this city, which today numbers 250,000 residents, was one-third as large and engulfed by the same national economic depression that produced rampant joblessness, and inflation that essentially rendered the currency worthless. In the 1990s, Cajamarca and the villages in the surrounding Andes became a place where leaders and soldiers of the Shining Path, the leftist insurgency, came to heal during the nearly decade-long civil war that killed 70,000 people, according to government estimates.

Members of the Shining Path were a murderous bunch. With death threats, coercion, and targeted killing they sowed fear and disorder. Those who could leave the country, did. Peru’s president, Alberto Fujimori, responded by forming death squads that attacked the insurgents and also murdered a good number of innocent citizens. Fujimori was prosecuted for crimes against humanity, convicted, and in 2009 sentenced to a 25-year prison term.

Earlier this month a social scientist from Australia, Martin Scurrah, who’s spent much of his adult life in Peru, explored the history of Peru’s dark era with me. As his narrative neared its end I remarked that in its basic details — severe economic pain, political insurgency, social disorder, rampant death — it resembled what the United States is now experiencing. Peru’s recent story also produced a contemporary chapter that could hold lessons for the United States.

The matchless alpine meadows of the Peruvian Andes. Photo/Keith Schneider
The matchless alpine meadows of the Peruvian Andes. Photo/Keith Schneider

Continue reading “Peru’s Recession and Insurgency Revives Its Democracy; Example For the U.S.?”