Why Are Federal Workers Selling Oil Drilling Rights in the Midst of a Shutdown?

Any Green New Deal has to address the Department of the Interior’s role in fueling climate change.

Ryan Driskell Tate

President Donald Trump speaks in the Cabinet Room on the 21st day of the partial government shutdown at the White House on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On Tues­day, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion ordered a skele­ton crew of fed­er­al employ­ees back to work dur­ing the longest gov­ern­ment shut­down in U.S. his­to­ry. Along­side the tens of thou­sands of work­ers need­ed to main­tain food safe­ty stan­dards and issue tax refunds, the White House includ­ed a small batch of staffers at the U.S. Depart­ment of the Inte­ri­or. These Inte­ri­or offi­cials, who process the sale of oil drilling rights, will ensure Big Oil gets its easy feast of pub­lic lands even with the rest of the gov­ern­ment ground to a halt.

The invisible handshake between the Interior and extractive industries originated at its founding.

The episode pro­vides the per­fect illus­tra­tion of one over­looked real­i­ty of the cli­mate cri­sis: The Inte­ri­or is the fed­er­al engine of the fos­sil-fuel econ­o­my, and there’s no way to address cli­mate change with­out over­haul­ing the department.

The Inte­ri­or is the nation’s largest land man­ag­er and over­sees about one fifth of the Unit­ed States. The pub­lic domain under its juris­dic­tion har­bors some of the largest coal, oil and nat­ur­al gas fields in the world. The offi­cials with­in the Inte­ri­or are respon­si­ble for the issuance of min­er­al leas­es on these pub­lic lands and ter­ri­to­ries. That has his­tor­i­cal­ly meant open­ing up America’s resources for rapid exploita­tion. The Inte­ri­or, even by its own account, has leased and sold unimag­in­able acreages to pri­vate com­pa­nies for slack terms and at bar­gain-base­ment prices.

One hun­dred and sev­en­ty years of prepar­ing an easy feast for extrac­tive indus­tries has cer­tain­ly tak­en its toll on the envi­ron­ment. The Unit­ed States Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey recent­ly con­duct­ed a study that found the pub­lic lands now con­tribute to one quar­ter of all U.S. car­bon emis­sions (not to men­tion size­able por­tions of the green­house gas­es methane and nitrous oxide). The first-of-its-kind report, com­mis­sioned under the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion and buried by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion late last year, con­clud­ed that coal-fired pow­er plants and coal mines — even aban­doned ones that con­tin­ue to release methane for years — rep­re­sent the largest share of these emis­sions. These oper­a­tions would nev­er have exist­ed with­out the Interior’s free­wheel­ing policies.

The pub­lic faces of the Inte­ri­or often receive the blame for sup­port­ing the spade­work of fos­sil-fuel cap­i­tal­ism. A list of Inte­ri­or sec­re­taries reads like a Who’s Who” of ras­cals and né’er-do-wells. Albert Fall, who led the Inte­ri­or back in the 1920s, accept­ed bribes from oil com­pa­nies for the rights to drill on fed­er­al lands. His secret sale of oil reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming became the most sen­sa­tion­al case of high-lev­el cor­rup­tion pri­or to Water­gate. The for­mer Inte­ri­or Sec­re­tary James G. Watt has even been ranked among the Top 10 Worst Cab­i­net Mem­bers” in his­to­ry for his leas­ing of pub­lic lands dur­ing the Rea­gan years.

The Interior’s most recent chief, Ryan Zinke, earned blis­ter­ing crit­i­cisms through­out his tenure. He spent the bet­ter part of two years feed­ing the appetites of Don­ald Trump’s plan for ener­gy dom­i­nance.” He once told a room full of ener­gy-sec­tor insid­ers that the Inte­ri­or should not be in the busi­ness of being an adver­sary,” but in the busi­ness of being a part­ner.” Dur­ing his final act at the Inte­ri­or, Zinke bragged that the pub­lic lands shall nev­er be held hostage again for our ener­gy needs,” and hand­ed over the reins to a for­mer fos­sil-fuel lobbyist.

This cap­i­tal­ist cru­sad­er makes a use­ful mus­tache-twirling vil­lain, but the Inte­ri­or is not a one-man show. The Interior’s kow­tow to cor­po­rate inter­ests has bedev­iled even those lead­ers who voiced their mis­giv­ings. Stew­art Udall, who led the Inte­ri­or through­out most of the 1960s, was no stooge of pri­vate inter­ests. He warned Amer­i­cans about the qui­et cri­sis” in con­ser­va­tion and the van­ish­ing beau­ty” of the nation. He became some­thing of a patron saint with­in the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment for his sup­port of sev­er­al land­mark pieces of envi­ron­men­tal leg­is­la­tion. Nev­er­the­less, he strug­gled through­out his years to safe­guard America’s pub­lic lands. His tenure over­saw a mas­sive cor­po­rate give­away of coal and oil leas­es in the west­ern states (some of which are large­ly respon­si­ble for car­bon emis­sions today).

The invis­i­ble hand­shake between the Inte­ri­or and extrac­tive indus­tries orig­i­nat­ed at its found­ing. The Inte­ri­or is tasked by law­mak­ers to bal­ance min­er­al extrac­tion and con­ser­va­tion on the pub­lic lands. These fed­er­al sen­tinels” pro­tect the nation’s nat­ur­al resources but also man­age them for com­mer­cial use. The ten­sion in these man­dates has nev­er been resolved. The Interior’s knee-jerk ten­den­cy has been to exploit for the present rather than con­serve for the future. Back in the 19th cen­tu­ry, its pro­cliv­i­ties came under such heavy scruti­ny that Amer­i­can news­pa­pers and car­toons reg­u­lar­ly lam­pooned the Inte­ri­or as a Tro­jan Horse for min­ing inter­ests. A fed­er­al inves­ti­ga­tion in 1905 exposed so much cor­rup­tion and patron­age at the Inte­ri­or— bad and unbusi­nesslike prac­tices” — that it rec­om­mend­ed its elimination.

The con­ser­va­tion­ist move­ment, and lat­er envi­ron­men­tal move­ment, heav­i­ly influ­enced Inte­ri­or per­son­nel, but old habits die hard. The Inte­ri­or remained com­mit­ted to rip-and-roar extrac­tion and at one point in the late 1960s issued three-quar­ters of a mil­lion acres to John­ny-on-the-spot coal com­pa­nies with­out regard to land-use plan­ning, envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, or mar­ket val­ue. The sit­u­a­tion,” the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences wrote at the time, has become near­ly chaot­ic.” It took Nixon’s Inte­ri­or Sec­re­tary Rogers Mor­ton, a rock-ribbed Repub­li­can, to ini­ti­ate a mora­to­ri­um on min­er­al leas­es just to fig­ure out how ener­gy com­pa­nies gob­bled up the country’s pub­lic reserves so fast. In the after­math, the Inte­ri­or pro­duced a new tem­plate for min­er­al leas­ing based on cor­po­rate-friend­ly mar­ket prin­ci­ples” — oth­er­wise known as con­duct­ing business-as-usual.

Now, more than ever, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty needs a plat­form on the Inte­ri­or that pledges to pro­tect the pub­lic lands from fos­sil-fuel com­pa­nies. The pro­gres­sive move­ment for a Green New Deal” has sought to rein-in the brown econ­o­my” and its polit­i­cal and finan­cial back­ers. These activists have pro­posed a loose­ly-defined plan to extin­guish car­bon emis­sions (hope­ful­ly with­in a decade) and pro­vide a mas­sive pub­lic-works pro­gram to put com­mu­ni­ties on the front-lines of the fos­sil-fuel econ­o­my back to work. But this bold agen­da will nev­er come unto fruition unless the Inte­ri­or sev­ers its cozy ties to fos­sil-fuel interests.

The Inte­ri­or plays a cru­cial role in the pro­tec­tion of the envi­ron­ment but its con­ser­va­tion­ist eth­ic is too eas­i­ly under­mined by the pecu­niary forces with­in. What is nec­es­sary is to first stream­line the chaot­ic struc­ture of the Inte­ri­or. The nick­name for the Inte­ri­or, right after its found­ing in 1849, was the Depart­ment of Every­thing Else,” and pol­i­cy­mak­ers have nev­er fixed that sense of dis­or­der. The Inte­ri­or hous­es a hodge­podge of bureaus, offices and agen­cies: every­thing from Bureau of Ocean and Ener­gy Man­age­ment to the Bureau of Indi­an Edu­ca­tion. Some of these agen­cies pur­sue con­tra­dic­to­ry goals and peo­ple in dif­fer­ent parts of the Inte­ri­or view them­selves, and their work, in con­flict­ing ways. The his­to­ry of in-fight­ing at the Inte­ri­or could fill a bulky appen­dix. The staffers in the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment, for instance, have pre­vi­ous­ly worked with coal com­pa­nies to gain access to min­er­al rights under trib­al lands, while their col­leagues in the Bureau of Indi­an Affairs have some­times fought to bury the plans.

The Democ­rats need to ori­ent the Inte­ri­or around a con­sis­tent con­ser­va­tion­ist vision that puts renew­able resources front and cen­ter. Today, the Inte­ri­or ranks it two top pri­or­i­ties as con­ser­va­tion stew­ard­ship” and the devel­op­ment of our ener­gy and nat­ur­al resources.” These pri­or­i­ties are incom­pat­i­ble with the mass extrac­tion of fos­sil fuels — no mat­ter much the Inte­ri­or likes the buzz­words of sus­tain­abil­i­ty.” The vision has opened too much lee­way for sleights-of-hand and skull­dug­gery. The Green New Deal, or any oth­er cli­mate change ini­tia­tive, won’t be pos­si­ble until the Democ­rats beef-up the Interior’s con­ser­va­tion­ist arm. This may require new laws about how the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment con­ducts its busi­ness with fos­sil-fuel com­pa­nies or how it issues min­er­al leas­es. But that’s the only way to stop future Repub­li­can admin­is­tra­tions from slap­ping ener­gy dom­i­nance” on the Interior’s vision state­ment and auc­tion­ing off pub­lic lands for the price of an ice-cream cone.

Ryan Driskell Tate is a PhD can­di­date in Amer­i­can his­to­ry at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty. He is cur­rent­ly com­plet­ing a book on ener­gy devel­op­ment in the Amer­i­can West.
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