Trump proposes sharp cuts at Interior Department while pushing for more drilling on public lands

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Then-Congressman Ryan Zinke before his confirmation hearing to become Interior secretary. Washington Post photo.


As published by The Washington Post

The White House wants to cut the Interior Department budget by about 12 percent as the Trump administration shifts the agency’s focus toward promoting fossil fuel drilling and extraction on public lands and in federal waters.

The budget proposal released Tuesday would reduce Interior’s funding to $11.6 billion in fiscal 2018 — about $1.6 billion less annually — and eliminate programs that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has called unnecessary, duplicative or a low priority. Among them: discretionary grants to help reclaim abandoned mine sites, National Heritage areas that Trump administration officials say are more appropriately funded locally and National Wildlife Refuge payments to local governments.

The budget also significantly decreases funding for new major acquisitions of federal land, cutting such appropriations by more than $120 million. The administration says it instead intends to focus on investing in and maintaining existing federal lands. In particular, Tuesday’s proposal would boost money to help address the roughly $11 billion maintenance backlog within the national park system.

“It was not an easy job. There were difficult decisions that were made,” Zinke said in a call with reporters. “This budget overall speaks to the core mission of the Department of the Interior. It funds our highest priorities — safety, security, infrastructure.”

The budget proposal would pour more funding into the development of oil, gas and coal investments on public lands. Onshore fossil fuel programs would receive $189 million annually, an increase of $24 million; offshore programs would get $343 million, including a $10 million increase to update the nation’s five-year offshore drilling plan. The Bureau of Land Management would get a $16 million increase in its oil and gas management program to accelerate the rate at which its staff processes permit applications and addresses right-of-way requests for infrastructure projects.

The budget also includes a proposal aimed at opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas leasing, though that would require approval by Congress.

“We have not been a good partner with industry,” Zinke said of the push for expanded energy production on public lands, adding that federal revenue from offshore drilling leases is only a fraction of what it was a decade ago. “Energy production is vital to our national security and our national economy.”

Last month, President Trump signed an executive order aimed at expanding offshore drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans and assessing whether energy exploration can take place in marine sanctuaries in the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.

That move made millions of acres of federal waters eligible for oil and gas leasing, just months after President Barack Obama withdrew them from possible development. At a signing ceremony, Trump emphasized that the United States has abundant offshore oil and gas reserves, “but the federal government has kept 94 percent of these offshore areas closed for exploration and production, and when they say closed, they mean closed.”

Zinke has said it would probably take about two years to do a thorough review of what new areas could be put up for auction.

The Interior Department employs 70,000 people at more than 2,000 locations and manages 530 million acres, or about 20 percent of U.S. territory. It controls even more resources underground, including about 700 million acres of minerals.

After his confirmation in March, Zinke said in an address to staffers that he disagreed with the initial version of the White House’s budget proposal and vowed to push back against deep cuts. “I looked at the budget. I’m not happy, but we’re going to fight about it, and I think I’m going to win at the end of the day,” he said at the time.

Environmentalists were quick to criticize the proposed cuts, saying the budget would prioritize fossil fuel development while hurting key science programs, hindering work to protect threatened and endangered species and crippling the National Wildlife Refuge System — the world’s largest land-and-water system dedicated to wildlife conservation.

“The Trump budget includes devastating and unacceptable cuts to vital conservation programs,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, chief executive of the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife, who directed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under Bill Clinton. “We owe it to our children and grandchildren to be good stewards of our environment and leave behind a legacy of protecting our air, land, water and wildlife. But this budget is a disaster that flies in the face of those values.”

Interior officials are also taking aim at the wild horses and burros that range on federal lands, by seeking to eliminate language that restricts it from euthanizing the animals in order to reduce their numbers. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that as of March nearly 73,000 wild horses and burros roam federal land, “almost three times the number that is sustainable and healthy for the land and the animals.”

BLM wants to use “the full range of tools” identified under a 1971 law, the agency said in a statement, “including humane euthanasia and unrestricted sale of certain excess animals.”