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Interior secretary’s personal schedule shows industry chiefs have frequent access

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (left) talks with rancher Heidi Redd after a morning hike in the Indian Creek region of Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument.  (Scott G Winterton/Deseret News via AP)

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spent much of his first two months in office meeting with energy and other industry groups, according to personal schedules released this week under the Freedom of Information Act.

The schedules, which cover March and April, detail a slew of meetings with oil and gas producers as well as officials representing gun owners, marine industries, automobile dealers and builders. Zinke, who was confirmed by the Senate on March 1, also met with representatives of the Navajo Nation and Montana’s Little Shell Tribe, as well as numerous lawmakers and officials from a range of states and U.S. territories.

Zinke held more than a half-dozen meetings with executives from nearly two dozen oil and gas firms during the period, including BP America, Chevron and ExxonMobil. He also spent time with the American Petroleum Institute, the Western Energy Alliance and Continental Resources chief executive Harold Hamm. Several of these discussions covered executive actions the administration would later take in an effort to reverse President Barack Obama’s policies, such as limits on drilling off America’s coasts and the venting of methane from drilling operations on federal and tribal land.

Politico first reported details of Zinke’s calendar.

Jack Gerard, president and chief executive of API, said in a statement that “Interior is a critical agency for the natural gas and oil industry, regardless of who is in office. API engages with every agency, and our goal is to have constructive discussions to promote forward-looking policies that advance America’s energy leadership throughout the world.”

As for Zinke, Gerard added, he “has been open to constructive dialogue and has shown a willingness to work with all stakeholders.”

The Montanan invited the National Wildlife Federation to his office on his first day, according to his spokeswoman Heather Swift, and he has since met with officials from the Nature Conservancy, the Outdoor Industry Association and with the president of the Congress-chartered National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

But Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune criticizes the secretary for not paying more attention to conservation groups. “Zinke’s schedule makes it obvious that he would rather meet with big oil companies like Chevron, BP, and ExxonMobil who want to drill our precious public lands than the tribes and communities who want to protect them,” Brune said in a statement. “Zinke claims to want to walk in Teddy Roosevelt’s shoes, but Roosevelt would be stunned by Zinke’s obvious agenda of trying to sell out our natural legacy.”

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Tom Cors sees it differently. The Nature Conservancy’s public lands director for U.S. government relations says Zinke “is trying to live up to” being a Teddy Roosevelt Republican. In April, Cors and other conservancy officials gave him a tour of Santa Cruz Island, the part of the Channel Islands National Park in California that they have helped restore. This month they showed him a section of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah — which the Trump administration is considering shrinking or rescinding — that the organization owns.

“We are using our longstanding relationship with him to work with him and are trying to create success with that administration, as we have with every other administration,” Cors said Thursday night.

The secretary’s itinerary on that trip to Utah — including whom he saw and for how long — sparked controversy. Local tribal officials, who view Bears Ears as sacred ground and want its monument status preserved, complained that they had only an hour with him after months of unanswered requests. Even before his travels, Zinke had met in his office with Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) and members of the state’s congressional delegation, who want the monument rescinded.

Zinke’s schedules show he hosted Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and the chief of staff for Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) in early April. It’s unclear if their conversation focused on the future of the Navajo Generating Station, a huge coal plant facing closure by its owners.

Also on the schedules were Zinke’s multiple meetings with National Rifle Association officials, including an April 5 session in his office with NRA Institute for Legislative Action executive director Chris W. Cox. Zinke then flew to Atlanta on April 28 to deliver an address at the group’s convention.

His calendar since taking office highlights his penchant for speaking with journalists from conservative media outlets. He appeared on the Fox News Channel five times during the two months and granted interviews to Breitbart, National Review and the Washington Examiner. He also spoke with reporters from the New York Times and Bloomberg.

In addition, the calendar gives a sense of how former officials in the George W. Bush administration provided input during the Trump administration’s early days.

In late March, Zinke got together with Randall Luthi, who used to direct Interior’s Minerals Management Service and now heads the National Ocean Industries Association, for a “personnel meeting,” according to his schedule. The next month he spoke to NOIA’s conference in Washington.

In an interview last month, Luthi said he had been inviting the head of Interior to address his members “twice a year” since 2010. “Secretary Zinke was the first” to come, Luthi said.

And on April 5, the secretary spoke by phone with former vice president Richard B. Cheney.

Kate Kelly, public lands director for the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, suggested in an email that “Zinke’s schedule raises a lot of questions.”

“We know more about how he spends his time from his twitter feed than we do from these schedules,” she said, noting that one shows a full week in California — where he and his wife have a home — without any details about whom he met with “or how he used taxpayer dollars.” By contrast, Zinke’s tweets reveal that he met with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and Interior employees there. “Why not be transparent about that?” Kelly asked.