Zinke Preparing to Reshape Interior Through Personnel

By David Schultz and Alan Kovski

A hiring freeze the Interior Department instituted for staff in the Washington and Denver metropolitan areas is a first step toward its shrinking middle and upper management and shifting more personnel into local and state offices, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said June 20.

“We have too many middle management and above,” Zinke told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “We need more scientists in the field, and less lawyers.”

A little later, at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce energy forum, the Interior secretary detailed more of the strategy for reshaping the department.

“You’ll see first blush of it come out in about 60 days or so,” Zinke said at the forum. “Sixteen percent of Interior today is retirement age. In four years, it will be 40 percent retirement age. This is the opportunity to evolve. This is the opportunity to do it.”

Zinke told the Senate panel that the administration’s proposed budget cuts for fiscal 2018 would reduce staff by about 4,000 to a total of about 60,000.

Reductions in personnel in some quarters also could fit with an effort to increase action in other areas. The Trump administration requested a $16 million boost, to $75.9 million, in fiscal year 2018 appropriations for oil and gas permitting by Interior’s Bureau of Land Management.

President Donald Trump and Zinke said they want to increase U.S. energy production, which critics take to be an excessive focus on fossil fuels, although Zinke insists the strategy includes renewables.

Caution on Spreading Authority

Zinke has in the past spoken of allowing more decision-making by the “front-line” staff, his terminology derived from his background as a Navy SEAL. Kathleen Sgamma, president of the oil and gas industry group Western Energy Alliance, offered a few cautionary notes June 20 despite her strong support for policies that foster energy development.

Distributed management can be an asset, involving personnel on the ground who understand the work done by oil and gas companies, but headquarters also has to provide guidance, Sgamma told Bloomberg BNA.

“My caution would be that a lot of times these federal officials do need direction from the top,” Sgamma said. “We have seen natural resource specialists making decisions based on an agenda” rather than the law, she said.

“In reality, they’re oftentimes making things up,” Sgamma said.

Mitigation Strategies Changed

Zinke criticized Obama administration policies on permitting during his talk at the Chamber of Commerce event. He said he saw the policies as obstructive and at times “extortion,” and has begun taking steps to change the policies.

“I was in Alaska looking at the National Petroleum Reserve. You’d think it would be easy to bring resources out of that and put it in the pipeline. But the last administration was rough on that,” Zinke said.

Companies that want to invest in oil development also have to pay compensatory mitigation to build roads and other infrastructure. The National Environmental Policy Act encourages mitigation strategies designed to offset environmental harm, and a 2015 memorandum by President Barack Obama pushed federal agencies to become more aggressive on mitigation.

Some mitigation has taken the form of federal agencies requesting substantial sums of money for an agency to use on mitigation projects nearby or elsewhere.

“In many quarters, that’s called extortion,” Zinke said. “One of the first orders I did was to end compensatory mitigation.”

A Zinke secretarial order May 31 launched a review of leasing policies for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The review has stirred hope among oil companies and fear among environmental advocates.

To contact the reporters on this story: David Schultz in Washington at dschultz@bna.com; Alan Kovski in Washington at akovski@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

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