It was only about three weeks after the midterm elections, and tensions had reached a boiling point between one of President Trump's Cabinet members and the top Democrat set to oversee his department next year.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, called on Ryan Zinke to resign over his “ethical and managerial failings.” In response, the interior secretary accused Grijalva of being a drunk.
After that remarkably personal and public attack from a Cabinet official to a member of Congress, the two were on a collision course with Democrats set to take the reins of the House come January.
Grijalva promised to bring Zinke before his committee to testify. He wanted to know more about a potential conflict-of-interest-ridden land deal in his home state of Montana with the chairman of oil services giant Halliburton, one of the companies Zinke's agency regulates.
That showdown was not meant to be. Zinke resigned on Saturday amid an investigation into that dealing before Grijalva could take the gavel in January.
But Grijalva says he is still interested in getting Zinke's testimony. And even with Zinke out, the Arizona Democrat still has an aggressive oversight agenda for the Interior Department.
He is setting his sights not just on Zinke's remaining deputies but on an entire “culture” at interior created under Zinke of allegedly catering to the interests of miners and drillers, he said in an interview with me and Juliet Eilperin on Wednesday.
“It's a culture now that we're investigating,” Grijalva said. “A culture that has shifted dramatically from what the mission of Interior has been in the past.”
As Grijalva sees it, the Interior Department has strayed from its mission to administer public lands for several uses — giving Americans spots to recreate outdoors, harvest timber and graze cattle while preserving natural and historic resources — to one that focuses too narrowly on one of those services: extraction.
Grijalva said he wants to know what is driving the Trump administration to, for example, remove protections from nearly 2 million acres of potentially mineral-rich canyonlands in two national monuments in Utah and to accelerate seismic testing for oil and gas under 1.5 million acres of coastal plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
“Zinke gone doesn't eliminate the fact that we need to look into that decision-making process,” Grijalva said.
The man that many, including Grijalva, see as being the architect behind much of the department's policy is still at the agency. Grijalva said he plans to bring that official, David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist who Trump picked as deputy secretary of the Interior Department who is set to lead the agency on an acting basis, before his committee.
“It's safe to say that all of us who deal with Interior to a great extent knew that he was the one making the calls,” Grijalva said.
Beyond investigating interior, Grijalva said he wants to permanently reauthorize the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund, which funnels oil and gas revenue from public lands to the expansion of parks and wildlife refuges. He would also like to create another fund dedicated to improve roads, bridges and other infrastructure on parklands.
The permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund was one of several land issues that emerged as a "last-minute snag" Wednesday to the swift passage of a must-pass spending bill in the Senate, The Post's Erica Werner, Paul Kane and Josh Dawsey report. The chamber dropped the language and punted the issue to the next Congress.
Natural Resources is one of several panels planning to spotlight the issue of climate change in the next Congress. Grijalva plans for the committee's “first big hearing,” anticipated in early February, to be about climate change.
As for the scrutiny of interior, Grijalva insists those inquiries will not be motivated by bad blood between him and the agency's former leader.
After publishing an op-ed in USA Today calling for Zinke to leave office, the interior secretary defended himself by bringing up a three-year-old settlement paid to a former female staffer who accused Grijalva of creating a hostile work environment by being drunk.
“It's hard for him to think straight from the bottom of the bottle,” Zinke tweeted. “This is coming from a man who used nearly $50,000 in tax dollars as hush money to cover up his drunken and hostile behavior.”
Grijalva, who had been getting lunch at a Capitol Hill bar after voting was done for the day, described being taken aback by the tweet. “My first reaction, I was really, really angry and I wanted to defend myself and take a shot back,” he said.
Citing health concerns, Grijalva decided to cancel an interview scheduled for that afternoon on C-SPAN. But he declined to respond in kind with an ad hominem attack.
“Once I jumped in that sty," he said, "I was going to be stuck wrestling in there for a while.”
Only a few weeks later, Zinke submitted his resignation letter to Trump, saying he was no longer willing to endure the “vicious and politically motivated attacks” he said were being made against him.
Grijalva has acknowledged that he once had a drinking program, but he says it's now under control. On Tuesday, the House Ethics Committee, which had been investigating that complaint from the former staffer, dismissed the allegations of wrongdoing by Grijalva in connection with the payment earlier this month.
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
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— More on Zinke's departure: The outgoing interior secretary has come a long way from the day he paraded across the Mall on a horse in a cowboy the day after he was confirmed. At the time of his appointment, some liberal conservationists thought “Zinke appeared to be a conservative who could bridge the partisan divide,” The Post’s Darryl Fears, Juliet Eilperin and Josh Dawsey report this morning. “Now the political future of the ex-Navy SEAL who so quickly found national prominence isn’t so bright.” They write a political comeback is still possible in conservative Montana.
His downfall: “During his brief 21-month tenure, he racked up a total of 15 probes into his management and behavior,” they write. But even before the emergence of ethical questions, Zinke’s proposal to open nearly the entire U.S. outer continental shelf to the oil and gas industry and his subsequent move to assure Gov. Rick Scott (R) that Florida would be exempt put the secretary in hot water with his boss and led to an inspector general investigation.
Scene from his last days: Before he resigned, Zinke told the White House he wanted to host a holiday party. “On a wall in his office were hunting trophies of bison and elk heads that he’d ordered workers to mount. In a corner was the stuffed carcass of a grizzly, with a Santa’s cap perched on its massive head. The secretary’s signature collection of large military assault knives was nearby.”
— Trump administration releases lead plan: The long-awaited “action plan” aims to “help federal agencies work strategically and collaboratively to reduce exposure to lead with the aim of ultimately improving children’s health.” But critics say the plan doesn’t including anything new.
When asked about that, acting EPA chief Andrew Wheeler “pointed to changes that have already been under way, noting the Trump administration was moving forward on revising standards for lead in dust and in drinking water,” the Associated Press reports. “Environmental and public health advocates said they welcomed the attention to lead contamination. However, they faulted the plan for lacking deadlines for regulatory or enforcement action.”
Zooming in on the problem: When Detroit’s new schools superintendent ordered universal water testing for the city’s schools, the results were “confounding,” The Post’s Brady Dennis reports. “Old schools, newer schools, high schools, elementary schools — all proved susceptible to lead contamination,” he writes. So the superintendent's solution was to shut off the drinking water in every school and buy bottled water, a decision that set the cash-strapped district back hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.
It’s a problem across the country: “The lack of any nationwide standards has resulted in a patchwork system in which local officials, with stretched budgets and a long list of other priorities, are left largely on their own to contend with whether to test, how to do it and what action to take when they almost inevitably find lead.” Dennis adds that following the crisis in Flint, Mich., school systems nationwide faced “renewed pressure to test for lead, an issue many have wrestled with — or in some cases largely ignored — for decades.”
— Flake drops carbon tax bill on way out the door: Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is sneaking in a last-minute carbon tax bill in the days before he retires from Congress. Similar to an existing House bill, the Senate version introduced with Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) would apply a tax to carbon emissions and rebate revenue as a dividend to American households, the Washington Examiner reports.
“Both the House and Senate bills would impose a tax of $15 per ton of carbon dioxide in 2019, increasing $10 each year, rising to nearly $100 per ton by 2030,” per the report. As a member of the House, Flake co-sponsored carbon tax legislation in 2009.
— A new LNG deal with Poland: Port Arthur LNG, a unit of San Diego-based Sempra Energy, has signed a long-term deal with Poland’s state gas company as part of an effort to reduce reliance on Russian energy. The deal is for the sale of 2.7 billion cubic meters of gas per year over 20 years, the Associated Press reports, which the companies said is enough to meet 15 percent of Poland’s daily needs.
“As demonstrated with the launch of the Strategic Dialogue on Energy in Poland last month, the Trump administration remains committed to increasing energy diversity, advancing energy security, strengthening national security, and creating a future of prosperity and opportunity in Poland and throughout the region,” Energy Secretary Rick Perry said.
— “Never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity”: Two groups, Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats, released a statement responding to a Hill report that incoming majority leader Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said a planned select committee on climate change may not have subpoena power.
“If true, this decision is an insult to the thousands of young people across the country who have been calling on the Democratic Party leadership to have the courage to stand up to fossil fuel billionaires and make sure our generation has a livable future,” the groups said in a statement. “The Democratic Party establishment never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
— How is climate change affecting the Galápagos Islands? Not even Charles Darwin “could have imagined what awaited the Galápagos, where the stage is set for perhaps the greatest evolutionary test yet,” reports a New York Times team that traveled to the island chain 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.
They’re in a critical location, susceptible to surroundings because they are at the intersection of three ocean currents and at the whims of “one of the world’s most destructive weather patterns, El Niño, which causes rapid, extreme ocean heating across the Eastern Pacific tropics.”
“To see the future of the Galápagos, look to their recent past, when one such event bore down on these islands. Warm El Niño waters blocked the rise of nutrients to the surface of the ocean, which caused widespread starvation,” the Times reports. “That was in 1982. The world’s oceans have warmed at least half a degree Celsius since then.”
— Corn wars: The EPA granted ExxonMobil a hardship waiver this year, Reuters reports, relieving the oil giant’s Montana refinery from the renewable fuel standard. The agency is authorized to exempt plants of less than 75,000 barrels a day from the mandate if they prove financial hardship.
“Exxon, which reported earnings of almost $20 billion in 2017, became the largest known company to be awarded a such a waiver by the Trump administration’s EPA under a program meant to protect the smallest fuel facilities from going bust,” per the report.
— New shareholder pressure on oil giants: Activist investors are hoping to push five of the biggest oil companies to agree to fixed emissions targets, part of a “wave of climate-related proxy resolutions planned for spring 2019 annual shareholder meetings,” Reuters reports.
Investors in Chevron, for example, want the oil giant “to report on how it can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to meet the Paris accord, arguing climate change presents ‘portfolio risks to investors,’ ” per the report.
— Dominion decision delayed again: Virginia’s State Air Pollution Control Board unexpectedly postponed a decision on the controversial gas compressor station that Dominion Energy has been looking to build in a historic African American community. It’s the second time the regulators have delayed action on the station.
“The board voted 3 to 1 to delay consideration of the permit so the public could comment on new information about the demographics of the Union Hill area that was submitted to the state after the last public comment period closed,” The Post’s Gregory S. Schneider reports. “Crowds of protesters lined the street outside the downtown Richmond office building where the meeting was held, holding banners and chanting. Two men with a solar-powered van blared anti-pipeline music played on banjo and synthesizer. On Tuesday, activists held an all-night prayer vigil in Richmond.”
— Pipeline warning: A new report from the Government Accountability Office says the Transportation Security Administration’s practices for protecting pipelines in the United States are subpar, leaving them vulnerable to attack or other disruptions. “A successful pipeline attack could have dire consequences on public health and safety, as well as the U.S. economy,” the GAO report said. The agency made 10 recommendations, including improving security reviews and calling for external reviews of its process.
- Outgoing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is scheduled to do an interview with Fox News at 6 p.m. Eastern time.
— This weed is now a festive holiday destination: After a tall weed grew from a cracked city sidewalk in Ohio, one family took it upon themselves to decorate it, saying it reminded them of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Then in the following days, others had added their own decorations, too: a tree skirt, a toy train at its base, stockings, Santa hats and nonperishable foods for those in need, The Post’s Antonia Noori Farzan reports.