It’s safe to say that Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) is no friend of environmentalists. He boycotted Pope Francis’s speech to Congress in 2015 because the pontiff addressed climate change. He received a score of 3 percent that year from the League of Conservation Voters, significantly below the House average of 41 percent.
But his latest move came as a surprise to many. Gosar submitted a resolution Monday that threatens to repeal the National Park Service’s authority to manage private drilling for oil, gas and minerals at 40 national parks, according to the National Parks Conservation Association. Under what are known as the 9B rules, the Park Service, which controls the surface of natural parks, can decline drilling rights to parties that own resources beneath the surface if it determines that the operation would be an environmental threat.
“The resolution is just the latest in a series of moves by federal lawmakers to weaken environmental protections for national parks under the Congressional Review Act,” said the association, a nonprofit watchdog for parks. “If these repeals are signed into law … it will not only stop these protections, it will also prohibit agencies from issuing similar rules and protections in the future, unless directed by Congress.”
The parks that have “split-estate ownership” of surface and underground resources include Everglades National Park, Mammoth Cave National Park and Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the association said.
Gosar called claims that he’s trying to open the parks to more drilling “utterly false.” His resolution “simply seeks to block a midnight Obama [administration] regulation implemented in November” that he said targets the livelihoods of existing drilling operations in national parks.
The lawmaker was referring to an update to the 9B rules drafted by the Park Service a week before Trump was elected in November. At that time, then-Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis bemoaned that 60 percent of drilling operations allowed in parks were exempt from the regulations.
Jarvis also said a cap on financial assurance that went toward cleaning up any mess caused by drilling operations, $200,000, was inadequate to cover the true cost to restore the land. Finally, the Park Service had no authority to require compensation when operations strayed outside the boundaries of where they were limited to operating.
The park service eliminated the exemptions, removed the cap on financial assurance and authorized compensation to taxpayers when operations went outside their boundaries.
Gosar said his resolution targets the changes, not the 9B rules drafted in 1970. “Extremist groups are stoking unsubstantiated claims that H.J.Res.46 will allow significantly more drilling in our National Parks. “Once this fundamentally-flawed Obama regulation is rolled back, these private and state-controlled operations will continue under the same environmental regulations that have worked well for the past 38 years.”
Why were conservationists spooked by Gosar’s targeted resolution? Once upon a time, the six-year congressman was widely considered an outlier. He was elected to Congress as part of a 2010 tea party wave, sometimes angering the Republican leadership with statements that appeared to undermine them. But in this Congress, his stature is rising.
On Tuesday, the day after his resolution was referred to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, he was selected to chair its Subcommittee on Energy and Minerals. In a statement, he said: “We are in a prime position to foster America’s energy revolution, and I intend to empower my colleagues to take real action and enact practical solutions.
“By listening and engaging with our nation’s energy producers and consumers, this Subcommittee can reduce the unnecessary and job-killing red tape that continues to hold back economic development.”
Gosar’s elevation to subcommittee chairman, coupled with President Trump’s vow to push for more energy development on land controlled by the federal government, is cause for concern among environmentalists.
“This was a real surprise for us,” said Nick Lund, senior program manager for conservation at the parks association. “That they would this quickly go after drilling in national parks … I don’t know what this means for this Congress, and where this administration is going.”
As far as Gosar’s concerned, it’s an extreme overreaction. But the reaction could be related to his own earlier reaction to the Pope’s statements about climate change.
“The Earth’s climate has been changing since God created it, with or without man,” Gosar said. Climate scientists say that’s true to some degree, but human influence has greatly accelerated global warming since the start of the industrial age.
Gosar, who is Catholic, went on to criticize Pope Francis for condemning “anyone skeptical of the link between human activity and climate change and adopted the false science being propagated by the left.” In fact, the science includes thousands of peer-reviewed studies by top scientists throughout the world with only a few dissenters.
“If the pope wants to devote his life to fighting climate change then he can do so in his personal time,” Gosar said. “But to promote questionable science as Catholic dogma is ridiculous.”