The Interior Department’s No. 2 official issued a secretarial order just before Christmas rescinding several climate change and conservation policies issued under the Obama administration, saying they were “inconsistent” with President Trump’s quest for energy independence.
The Interior Department aims to mitigate any negative environmental impacts in transparent ways that follow federal law and “are consistent with direction provided by Congress” with “a level of certainty to all involved parties,” the order states.
While the documents are highly technical, the move underscores the extent to which Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his deputies are uprooting policies and procedures aimed at factoring climate and environmental effects into the department’s decision-making. The manuals and handbooks include detailed instructions on how officials at the Bureau of Land Management, for example, should minimize activities on the agency’s land that could harm certain species or accelerate climate change.
Alex Daue, assistant director of energy and climate at the Wilderness Society, said in an interview that Interior officials will still face the same legal obligations to reduce negative environmental impacts on public land, but “they no longer have the tools to do so efficiently and effectively.”
Officials spent years compiling a list of “best practices” in this area, Daue said, and the Trump administration “just ripped them up.”
Mark Wenzler, senior vice president for conservation programs at the National Parks Conservation Association, noted that one of the department-wide manuals that was revoked includes several guidelines for how to minimize the impacts of climate change, including “monitoring, preventing, and slowing the spread of invasive species,” preventing the fragmentation of habitat and “protecting and restoring habitats and ecosystems that store carbon.”
“It doesn’t make sense to not manage our lands to protect them from things that we know are going to happen,” Wenzler said, adding that Interior started developing the guidelines during Bush’s second term in office.
Zinke has been sharply critical of the idea of “mitigation,” where the federal government requires companies to pay to offset the negative environmental impact their activities have on public land. He singled out the practice at a speech before the Western Governors Association in June.
“Some people would call it extortion,” Zinke said of a power line company’s having to pay a huge fee to offset its project’s impact, according to an audio recording of the session. “I call it un-American.”
Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift wrote in an email Friday that when it came to the order, “I don’t think it’s unusual for a new administration to put in place their own policies that achieve their missions.” The Obama administration’s policies “reduced predictability, created conflicts, and unnecessarily increased permitting [and] authorization timelines.”
Jim Lyons, who served as Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management under the Obama administration, said in an interview that revoking these policies will undermine the kind of landscape-scale conservation espoused by scientists and many policymakers.
“They’re determined to lease and develop every acre they possibly can, which will minimize the potential for conserving these landscapes in subsequent administrations,” said Lyons, who is now a senior fellow at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress and a lecturer at Yale University. “They’re quite efficient, and they know exactly what they want to do.”
The Interior Department has also invited public comment on the mitigation policy adopted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in November 2016, which says the agency will “at minimum” require “no net loss” of habitat when approving regulated activities. Several oil and gas groups, including the Independent Petroleum Association of America, the American Petroleum Institute and the American Exploration & Production Council, will submit comments Friday asking for the policy to be revoked on the grounds that it “prioritizes conservation objectives” over other uses of public land.