Zinke Gets Bipartisan Warnings Against Offshore Oil Drilling

By Alan Kovski

New Jersey is opposed. Maine is opposed. Washington is opposed.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was treated to another round of warnings April 11 from members of Congress that their coastal states are overwhelmingly opposed to an expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling to their regions.

“We don’t want oil drilling in our neck of the woods,” Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told Zinke at a subcommittee hearing on the Trump administration’s budget request for fiscal 2019.

The Interior Department in January released a first draft of a proposed five-year program for offshore leasing for expanded oil and gas exploration. The proposal kicked off discussion—most of it negative—by suggesting an opening of 98 percent of the federal offshore to hydrocarbon exploration.

Zinke has heard the opposition during hearings and meetings with governors, and he heard more of it during the subcommittee meeting. And as before, he offered assurances that state voices were being taken into account.

When Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) pressed him on the subject, Zinke said, “I’m sure Maine’s going to be very happy with the draft proposal,” referring to the next stage of the plan, due out in the fall. The final version is not expected until 2019.

Zinke also assured Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) that the coast of Washington was not a likely place for oil exploration.

Budget Cuts Questioned

Members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies also expressed skepticism about proposed budget cuts for land management and science in the administration’s fiscal 2019 spending request.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee, illustrated the attitude of lawmakers by mentioning an administration proposal to eliminate funding for an earthquake warning system, important to his home state.

“It’s safe to say that this subcommittee won’t agree to eliminate this program,” Calvert said.

Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) expressed concern about inadequate staffing in his state for the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management.

“We are short in the field,” Zinke agreed. “Every time I go out, we are short in the field, long in the headquarters.”

Zinke has often said he intends to allow more decision making in the regional, state, and local Interior offices rather than headquarters.

Redrawing Interior’s Map

Zinke explained the overall concept of the reorganization plan Interior is developing. The idea is for the regional work of various Interior agencies to be coordinated, primarily within watersheds.

He described some of the frustration encountered in the existing system, which can involve overlapping, disjointed analyses of such things as potential environmental and species impacts of a proposed project.

“You can have multiple biological opinions produced by different agencies,” Zinke said, referring to the analyses provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The initial plan involved development by the U.S. Geological Survey of a map dividing Interior territories into 13 segments based primarily on watershed areas. Senior officials then reviewed and used that for their recommendations.

It has worried state officials who question whether it will match well with state land and wildlife management. Zinke assured lawmakers that state interests will be taken into account. As the hearing was ending, he added that Congress would have a big say in the reorganization plan.