Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s resignation Saturday ended months of speculation about whether he could hold onto his job amid several ethics investigations.
Zinke’s policy decisions at the Interior Department were overshadowed in recent months by several investigations into his business deals and connections to powerful players in the energy industry.
But in his nearly two-year stint as Interior secretary, Zinke, a former Montana congressman, played a leading role in the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back Obama-era regulations on oil and gas drilling, and mining and wildlife protection, among other policies.
President Donald Trump, who announced Zinke’s departure on Twitter, said he would pick a replacement this week.
In the meantime, here’s a look at some of the major changes to energy and environmental policy under Zinke’s leadership at the Interior Department.
Scrapping sage grouse protections
In June 2017, Zinke announced a plan to strip protections for the sage grouse, a North American bird that resides largely in Western United States. The decision to remove restrictions on the sage grouse’s habitat effectively opened nine million acres of public land in the West to oil and gas drilling.
The move was cheered by oil and gas companies,and criticized by environmental advocates who said the administration was shunning protections for the sage grouse in favor of the energy industry’s interests. Zinke had previously insisted that any rollbacks of the restrictions on sage grouse habitat would not severely endanger the bird, at one point telling the New York Times that “no one loves the sage grouse more than I do.”
Federal lands re-opened to leasing for mining
Soon after taking office, Zinke announced measures intended to bolster the coal industry, one of Trump’s top campaign promises during the 2016 election. In March of 2017, the Interior Department said it would rescind an Obama-era moratorium on leasing federal lands for mining, and suspend royalties on mining companies. Since then revenue from energy production on federal land has increased, according to an Interior Department report released last month.
But Zinke also banned mining on public land near Yellowstone Park in his home state of Montana. The ban, which was originally set for two years, was extended to the maximum period of 20 years.
NPR’s Tamara Keith and Amy Walter from the Cook Political Report join Judy Woodruff to discuss the Trump Administration’s turnover.
Zinke had long opposed mining projects in the region, known as Paradise Valley. “There are places where it is appropriate to mine and places where it is not. Paradise Valley is one of the areas it’s not,” Zinke said in a statement after announcing the ban.
The move drew support from conservationists, but some criticized Zinke for making a decision that would favor his home state while removing protections for public lands elsewhere in the U.S.
Shrinking major national monuments
In December 2017, the Interior Department announced that it would rollback federal protections for two major national monuments in Utah: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. The decision represented the single largest reduction of protected federal land in history and opened up energy development on public land long considered sacred by Native American tribes, leading to several lawsuits.
The decision was applauded by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who had criticized President Barack Obama’s decision to expand the national monuments in Utah. Interior Department documents obtained by the New York Times in March showed that Hatch pushed for the change and that the Interior Department appeared focused on energy development. One memo in particular noted that the Kaiparowits Plateau, located within the Grand Staircase monument, “contains one of the largest coal deposits in the United States.” The December 2017 change downsized Grand Staircase was by nearly 50 percent.
Vast swaths of land opened to offshore drilling
In January, Zinke announced plans to open nearly all U.S. coastal waters to offshore oil and gas drilling, including the coasts of Alaska, California and Florida. The decision was opposed by the governors of nearly a dozen states. Shortly thereafter, Zinke announced that he would exempt Florida from the offshore sales; a number of states, including North and South Carolina, have since also asked for to be exempted.
The change rolled back an Obama administration measure aimed at protecting U.S. coastal water from new oil and gas development. Zinke’s plan opened up 90 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf of the U.S. for energy production. Interior Department lease sales for drilling in the waters are set to begin in 2019, and last for a period of five years.
Zinke said the change would boost “American energy dominance” and bring in billions of dollars for the federal government. But environmentalists have expressed concern that opening the previously protected waters to offshore drilling would place certain wildlife species in danger, especially in areas such as Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation has long lobbied for expanded drilling rights. Zinke said in April that there had been “little” interest from oil and gas companies in new offshore lease sales.
Zinke is currently at the center of more than a dozen federal investigations. They include inquiries into Zinke’s involvement in a Montana real estate deal that would significantly benefit the chairman of the energy company Halliburton, as well as the Interior Department’s decision to deny a Native American tribe’s plans to open a casino following a lobbying campaign led partly by MGM International Casinos.
The Interior Department’s inspector general is investigating the real estate deal, which involves a foundation established by Zinke and his wife and a development group supported by Halliburton Chairman David Lesar. Zinke reportedly supported the deal with an eye towards bringing new money into his hometown of Whitefish, Montana. Following Politico’s reporting on the deal, Zinke said in a statement that he had resigned from the foundation after becoming Interior secretary. The inspector general’s probe has also been referred to the Justice Department.