When Scott Pruitt weathered criticism over the cost of his first-class flights, the Environmental Protection Agency chief suggested his “very next flight” would be coach.
When the same happened to then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, he apologized for the private charter flights he took and pledged to repay taxpayers nearly $52,000. He also ultimately resigned.
But what about Ryan Zinke, head of the Interior Department?
On Tuesday, the former Montana lawmaker -- in a trip to see his old colleagues on Capitol Hill -- defended his use of charter planes for trips to Montana, Alaska and the U.S. Virgin Islands that critics of the Trump administration hold up as yet another of spendthriftiness among Cabinet officials.
Labeling criticism as “innuendos,” Zinke defended his travel spending during a heated Senate budget hearing. Zinke went to Capitol Hill to defend the agency’s proposed $11.7 billion budget for 2019 and also argued that discounts for veteran and elderly visitors to national parks are forcing Interior to consider raising entrance fees.
“I resent the fact of your insults. I resent the fact they’re misleading,” Zinke told Maria Cantwell (Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee who pressed the secretary about a $12,375 flight Zinke chartered from Las Vegas to near his home in Montana.
Raising his voice after delivering staid opening remarks, Zinke bristled at the suggestion of impropriety, pointing out that his predecessors as interior secretary, Ken Salazar and Sally Jewell, spent “just under a million dollars” on 81 trips.
“I never took a private jet anywhere,” Zinke said, emphasizing that the flights he chartered in Alaska, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Nevada were on propeller planes, not jets.
“We’re looking at the larger issue of how time and money is spent,” Cantwell responded, “and the reason why we are is because of our citizens who want to know why their park fees are going up,” referring to a National Park Service proposal to double or, in some cases, nearly triple entrance fees for popular parks and attempting to link the issues.
Zinke had said the proposed price increase is just that — a proposal. “Our proposal looked at multiple options,” Zinke said.
He continued: “When you give free or discounted or free passes to the elderly, fourth-graders, veterans, disabled, and you do it by the carload, there’s not a whole lot of people that actually pay.”
Unlike Pruitt or Price, Zinke seemed to take a tack from his boss’s media playbook on the flights issue by refusing to relent in the face of scrutiny not only from the lawmakers but from within his agency. Last October, Interior’s inspector general opened an investigation into Zinke’s use of taxpayer-funded charter and military planes and his mixing of official trips with political appearances.
Even so, Zinke's job is unique among Cabinet officials. As interior secretary, he oversees one in every five acres of land in the United States, requiring him to fly to remote corners of the country, making comparisons between his travel spending and that of other top Trump officials more difficult.
Zinke’s defensive tone stands in contrast to the outreach he made to Democratic senators when seeking confirmation as interior secretary, demonstrating the degree to which tensions are now strained between congressional Democrats and the Trump administration. A year ago this month, 16 Senate Democrats joined every Republican in the chamber to approve Zinke.
On Tuesday, one of those 16 said he deeply regretted that vote.
“I voted for your nomination,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said, suggesting Zinke has fallen short of emulating his role model Theodore Roosevelt. “As of today, it is one of my biggest regrets.”
Later in the hearing, Zinke found a sympathetic ear in Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) over perceived criticism of an approximately 400-mile flight Zinke took from Alaska’s North Slope to Fairbanks. “They’re giving you heck for taking a private plane from the North Slope?” Cassidy asked, referring to a remote northern region of Alaska managed mostly by the Interior Department
“Senator, I’ve been shot at before,” Zinke replied. “I’m very comfortable with it.”
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— More from Zinke’s hearing: Zinke also signaled doubt that oil and gas exploration would happen off the Pacific coast, The Post’s Darryl Fears reports. He said California, Oregon and Washington have “no known resources of any weight” to be extracted, which means the states could be exempt from the Trump administration’s proposed offshore leasing expansion. The secretary's proposal on offshore drilling has been controversial, to say the least, especially after he exempted Florida from his plan following a meeting with the state's GOP governor, Rick Scott.
— And more on Pruitt's spending: Remember Scott Pruitt’s $25,000 soundproof phone booth, which The Post's Brady Dennis reported on in September? The total cost for the project now appears to be closer to $43,000, records show.
— The Rexit fallout: Environmental groups quickly reacted to the early Tuesday morning news that Rex Tillerson was ousted from his role as secretary of state. But while some were opposed to the former ExxonMobil chief executive leading the State Department, others expressed concern his replacement could have worse implications for the environment.
Tillerson, who reportedly clashed with President Trump on a number of issues, had taken a moderate stance on climate change, urging the president to support the Paris climate accord. Last year, Tillerson had argued for the nation to keep “its seat at the table about how to address the threat of climate change.” With Trump aides Gary Cohn and George David Banks also gone in recent days, few defenders of the agreement remain in Trump's orbit.
Meanwhile CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who Trump has nominated to replace Tillerson, has explicitly questioned climate science. The Post’s Chris Mooney explains how the move would elevate a climate skeptic to a role in charge of representing the nation at “a crucial upcoming international climate summit.” If confirmed, Pompeo would lead the State Department ahead of the international climate meeting in Katowice, Poland in December.
Here's how some reacted to Rexit on Twitter.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.):
Tillerson was ineffective at State but Pompeo could be even worse. I served with him in the House – he denies the reality of climate change, opposes the Iran Deal & supports regime change in #NorthKorea. We need an experienced diplomat at State, not a rubber stamp for Pres Trump. https://t.co/ixIDag5XCd— Rep. Barbara Lee (@RepBarbaraLee) March 13, 2018
USA Today editor Ray Locker:
Fun watching the transition of Tillerson from oil-soaked Putin crony to martyr.— Ray Locker (@rlocker12) March 13, 2018
From a few environmental groups:
- “In a strange kind of way, [Tillerson's] experience at Exxon dealing with energy and heads of state and climate gave him a deeper understanding of the diplomatic, economic and political dimensions of the issue,” Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told InsideClimate News. “From what we know, that does not seem to be the case with Pompeo.”
- “We’ve gone from Exxon’s CEO to the Koch Brothers' most loyal lap dog,” May Boeve, the executive director of 350.org, said about Pompeo. “Pompeo received over a million oil and gas dollars during his political career, has deep ties to the Kochs, and is a climate denier to the core.”
- Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said Pompeo “could prove to be dangerous to our national security and safety to our planet.”
- Meanwhile, Myron Ebell, a senior fellow at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute who led Trump’s transition team at the EPA, called the pick of Pompeo “good news for us,” HuffPost reports. Ebell said he hoped Pompeo would persuade President Trump to withdraw from the United Nation’s Convention on Climate Change.
— More musical chairs? Trump is considering firing Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and replacing him with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the New York Times reported Tuesday. While Trump did not make a formal offer to Perry, per the report, he has “grown impatient with the department’s current secretary… and may want to replace him with someone already in his cabinet.”
It is not clear whether Perry would accept a new role. But here’s some context: Perry has discussed using the department’s resources to help with veterans’ health care. The Energy and Veterans Affairs departments announced a partnership on veterans' health last year, and Perry told the Examiner that “once you understand what this agency is about, once you understand who it’s populated by, then this whole issue of why DOE is involved in veterans’ health becomes a lot easier to understand.”
— Meanwhile: Perry will no longer speak Wednesday at the innovation summit for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy because of a conflicting Senate hearing, per Bloomberg News's Rebecca Kern. The speech had all the makings of being awkward since the Trump administration for the second year in a row has proposed eliminating the department's energy startup incubator. Perry and four other Cabinet secretaries are scheduled to testify about infrastructure before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
— California vs. the Trump administration: During a visit to the state on Tuesday where he toured eight border wall prototypes, Trump said Gov. Jerry Brown has done a “very poor job running California,” per The Post’s John Wagner. The president criticized the Democratic governor while he was viewing prototypes of border walls near San Diego. Brown has positioned himself as a foil to the administration’s climate policies.
— California vs. the Trump administration, Part II: Pruitt said Tuesday the EPA is not looking to set stricter fuel economy standards beyond 2025 and warned that states like California would not be able to dictate their own car emissions standards. “California is not the arbiter of these issues,” Pruitt said in an interview with Bloomberg TV. He added while the state sets its own limits on greenhouse gas emissions, “that shouldn’t and can’t dictate to the rest of the country what these levels are going to be."
— Returning to Paris?: Former Trump energy adviser Banks has been repeatedly predicting the United States will rejoin the Paris climate deal. Most recently, he suggested to the Columbia Energy Exchange podcast that Trump would use the 2020 G-7 summit to make such an announcement. “I think it will be fairly easy for the president to agree that we are going to stay in, we are going to change the number, and then walk out of that summit arguing that he renegotiated the Paris agreement and did something that no one thought he could do, and came up with a much better deal than what the previous administration presented,” he said, per Axios.
— Too close to call: The special election for a U.S. House seat in southwest Pennsylvania, where Trump's steel tariffs were a big talking point, was too close to call late Tuesday. Republican Rick Saccone said "it’s not over yet" while Democrat Conor Lamb, ahead by several hundred votes, declared victory, The Post's David Weigel and Elise Viebeck report.
— Changing their tune: Songbirds living near noisy oil fields have had to change their tunes to be heard. That’s what researchers in Alberta, Canada describe in new research that included analyzing hundreds of hours of Savannah sparrow love songs. “Scholars of bird song have long noticed that avian city dwellers sound different from their peers in the country,” the New York Times reports. “But [University of Manitoba biologist Miyako Warrington] wanted to understand how wild birds adapt to the pumps and drills that oil and gas development has brought to wide swaths of North America.”
— Blizzard conditions: A third winter storm in three weeks blasted New England on Tuesday, with snowfall totals already hitting 12 inches on Tuesday morning, The Post’s Angela Fritz reports. In Boston, where the National Weather Service declared the storm an official blizzard, more than 200,000 homes and businesses were without power.
— Rebuilding an energy system: After Hurricane Maria destroyed much of Puerto Rico’s electric grid last year, the largest rooftop solar power provider in the U.S. territory will look to add battery storage to its home installations. The storm caused 10,000 customers with Sunnova Energy Corp. to lose power, but with the addition of batteries, solar panels would be able to continue working even with grid outages, Bloomberg explains.
— 180 million reasons: Should 65-year-old former ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson wish to return to the oil and gas business, the ousted secretary of state would have to forfeit roughly $180 million in deferred compensation, Bloomberg News reports, making the prospect of him landing at one of Exxon's rivals unlikely.
— VW vs.Tesla? Still fresh off of its emissions-rigging scandal, Volkswagen has vowed to overtake Tesla in the electric car market by building "at least 16 electric-vehicle plants by 2025" around the world, The Wall Street Journal reported.
— Colorado mine spill review: Pruitt told the Denver Post his agency is scheduled to complete its review of hundreds of damage claims from the Gold King Mine spill in 2015 by the end of March. Pruitt said the process will have included 400 claims from across Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and the Navajo Nation.
- The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on DOE modernization
- The House Natural Resources Committee holds a markup.
- ACORE holds its Renewable Energy Policy Forum.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on the “Agriculture Creates Real Employment (ACRE) Act.”
- Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will testify before the House Natural Resources Committee on Thursday.
- Energy Secretary Rick Perry testifies before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies on Thursday.
- Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao testifies before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies on Thursday.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources holds a hearing on abandoned hardrock mines on Thursday.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on Energy Department nominees on Thursday.
— Flashback to the storm of the century: Twenty-five years ago, the "Storm of the Century" “paralyzed every major highway from Atlanta northward. It killed hundreds of people, did billions of dollars in damage and is still unlike any winter storm we have seen,” Jeff Halverson writes for The Post.