This post has been updated.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke expressed doubt Tuesday that oil and gas exploration will happen off the Pacific coast as part of the Trump administration’s proposal to dramatically expand offshore leasing, saying California, Oregon and Washington have “no known resources of any weight” for energy companies to extract.
Discussing the Atlantic coast while testifying before the Senate Energy Committee, the secretary similarly described Maine as a state with little recoverable oil and gas.
Zinke stopped short of saying that the three Pacific states would be exempted from the president’s plan to offer leases on 95 percent of the outer continental shelf. But in his reply to a question from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), he acknowledged her state’s deep opposition.
“I think I’m going to mark down Washington as opposed to drilling,” Zinke said after Cantwell asked him to extend the public comment period for the drilling proposal. It is clear “the state of Washington is deeply, passionately opposed to oil and gas drilling off the coast,” he continued, promising that will be reflected in the next draft of the plan.
California and Oregon also are strongly against drilling off their shores, as are virtually all states along the Atlantic coast.
Zinke’s suggestion that the Pacific coast could be spared from drilling came in the last stage of a hearing that at times was heated. The former Navy SEAL commander engaged in several sharp exchanges with Democrats, who criticized the cost of his air travel on private aircraft and seeming favoritism for the oil and gas industry.
When Cantwell ripped Zinke for his use of private planes and helicopters, he lashed out. “Insults are misleading,” he said, adding, “I never took a private plane anywhere.” Looking directly at her, he said: “I resent … your insults. I resent that they’re misleading.”
In fact, Zinke booked a $12,000 flight on a charter jet owned by an oil executive and another private flight during a trip to the Caribbean last year. At the hearing, he described the aircraft he flew in the Virgin Islands as a prop plane. Later in the year, he billed taxpayers more than $6,000 for a quick helicopter trip to ride horseback with Vice President Pence. He called the criticism at the time “a wild departure from reality.”
The secretary’s appearance on Capitol Hill was officially to discuss the Trump administration’s fiscal 2019 budget and its effect on the Interior Department. The president has proposed a cut of $2 billion to the department’s nearly $13.5 billion budget.
Among the budget’s highlights, Zinke said, is a proposal to use revenue from new energy production projects for an infrastructure fund to deal with the National Park Service’s nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog. But doing so relies on congressional approval of legislation.
Zinke was warmly received by Republicans on the committee, starting with Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who welcomed his efforts to open the Arctic Ocean to leases and exploration. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) congratulated the secretary for shrinking two national monuments in his state, Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears.
“You and I have worked closely to chart a path to greater energy security, which, as you have noted, runs right through Alaska,” Murkowski said in her opening statement. “So I’d like to thank you for all that you’ve done to help Alaska and the nation this past year.”
But Democrats ripped into Zinke, deriding his spending for travel on military planes and private aircraft while proposing to raise entrance fees at the most popular national parks, virtually eliminating the Land and Water Conservation Fund, shrinking several national monuments and risking beach economies with drilling expansion.
“During your confirmation hearing, you mentioned Teddy Roosevelt nine times,” recalled Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). “Teddy Roosevelt understood that when you sell off or exploit public lands, you don’t get them back. Mr. Secretary, you don’t seem to understand that at all.” Wyden pointed to the nearly 2 million acres stripped from Grand Staircase and Bears Ears, and the drilling expansion.
Zinke fired back that the land carved away from the monuments is still under various federal protections, as wilderness areas, for example. Wyden wasn’t swayed. “We talked a lot during your nomination process,” the senator said. “I said I would support your nomination, and I did. I will tell you right now, as of today, it is one of the biggest regrets in my public service.”
Although budget cuts targeted for several Interior Department programs also came up in questions, offshore drilling took center stage. In another brief but heated exchange, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) asked Zinke why renewable-energy projects are the only ones being cut when he has said he supports an all-of-the-above energy strategy.
Zinke responded that solar energy requires hundreds of thousands of acres of land that lock out potential hunting and other uses and that wind “chops up birds,” explaining that windmill blades kill nearly 1.5 million birds and bats annually.
Cortez Masto then pressed him on why he doesn’t have similar reservations about offshore drilling exploration, given its risk and cost. “Didn’t I just hear you say offshore has a low demand?” she asked.
Zinke has exempted only Florida from the drilling proposal, saying the risk to beach tourism revenue driving the state’s economy is too great. He repeated that Florida also has a federal moratorium against oil and gas exploration that protects its coast until 2024.
That hasn’t satisfied a bipartisan group of governors, lawmakers and attorneys general of Atlantic- and Pacific-coast states who are firmly opposed to potential drilling and the seismic testing that would precede it. Such testing, some studies say, harms mammals that rely on echolocation to associate and feed and could frighten away fish that commercial and recreation fisheries need to survive.
Even if offshore oil and gas reserves prove to be low, a lease could lead to the exploratory seismic testing. The testing could also figure in efforts to map coastal geology.
Zinke said seismic testing is also needed for cultivating wind energy, which conservationists prefer, and suggested that it should move forward for offshore oil and gas development. “I’m pretty confident we have oil and gas onshore to meet our country’s needs,” he said. “But we should know where oil and gas reserves are as a country.”