Agency sec­re­tary en­vi­sions money grow­ing on trees of U.S. park sys­tem

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Cather­ine Tray­wick

Un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, the U.S. agency that man­ages the na­tional park sys­tem is tweak­ing its mis­sion to in­clude a new pri­or­ity: gen­er­at­ing cash.

In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke aims to re­tool the agency into a fed­eral profit cen­ter fo­cused on in­creas­ing en­ergy pro­duc­tion, ac­cord­ing to a plan laid out by his spe­cial ad­viser, Vin­cent DeVito.

“Our ob­jec­tive here is to bring as many re­sources on­line as re­spon­si­bly as we can,” DeVito said dur­ing an event in Wash­ing­ton on Thurs­day. “We are chang­ing the way the govern­ment is do­ing busi­ness.”

That means run­ning the govern­ment as though it ac­tu­ally is a busi­ness, ac­cord­ing to DeVito, who refers to him­self as a “se­nior man­ager” within “the Depart­ment of In­te­rior En­ergy.”

The agency needs to of­fer fed­eral lease­hold­ers, whom he calls “in­vestors,” a rea­son to part­ner with the govern­ment, which hasn’t been a par­tic­u­larly good busi­ness

part­ner in the past, he said. That means open­ing up more re­sources, mak­ing per­mit­ting eas­ier and “ag­gres­sively” cut­ting reg­u­la­tions on pri­vate in­dus­try.

Zinke has al­ready taken ma­jor steps in that di­rec­tion, over­turn­ing an Obama-era mora­to­rium on new coal leases and start­ing the process of over­haul­ing rules to curb hy­draulic frac­tur­ing and meth­ane flar­ing on pub­lic lands. He’s also plan­ning to re­write a fiveyear off­shore leas­ing plan fi­nal­ized by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama that banned drilling in the At­lantic Ocean and parts of off­shore Alaska, and has ac­cepted ap­pli­ca­tions from oil com­pa­nies seek­ing to con­duct seis­mic test­ing off the At­lantic coast.

It’s only the tip of the ice­berg, ac­cord­ing to DeVito, who was an early Trump sup­porter and a mem­ber of the pres­i­dent’s tran­si­tion team be­fore join­ing the In­te­rior Depart­ment.

The ul­ti­mate goal is to bring in more money by chang­ing the way fed­eral lands are man­aged. Roy­alty rev­enues from gas and coal leas­ing fell sig­nif­i­cantly un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. Coal pro­duc­tion on fed­eral lands fell 39 per­cent be­tween 2008 and 2016, while gas pro­duc­tion de­clined by 30 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to data from the Of­fice of Nat­u­ral Re­sources Rev­enue. Oil pro­duc­tion, by con­trast, rose 32 per­cent dur­ing the same pe­riod.

Oil, gas and coal pro­duc­tion are ob­vi­ous rev­enue op­por­tu­ni­ties, but DeVito said that so­lar and wind on fed­eral lands are fair game, too, as long as the end re­sult is “a marked in­crease in dol­lars into the fed­eral govern­ment. That is kind of the met­ric that we are judg­ing our­selves by.”

DeVito’s re­marks echo those made by Zinke in re­cent months. The In­te­rior chief has ad­vo­cated rais­ing roy­alty rates to help fund the Na­tional Park Ser­vice and other pro­grams. Any new rev­enue will ul­ti­mately ben­e­fit con­ser­va­tion, DeVito said.

But en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cates dis­miss that ar­gu­ment, point­ing in­stead to the pres­i­dent’s 2018 bud­get re­quest, which seeks to cut dra­mat­i­cally con­ser­va­tion pro­grams.

“Sec­re­tary Zinke’s job is to stew­ard the na­tional parks and mon­u­ments and not turn them over to the oil and gas in­dus­try,” said Alex Tau­rel of the League of Con­ser­va­tion Vot­ers. “No one should be­lieve that this drilling and min­ing has any­thing to do with con­ser­va­tion.”

The agency’s new ap­proach, which DeVito char­ac­ter­izes as “ag­gres­sive” has al­ready spurred a raft of le­gal chal­lenges, but DeVito said he’s not wor­ried about that: “Be­ing sued is not some­thing we take into se­ri­ous de­lib­er­a­tion when we ex­er­cise the sec­re­tary’s dis­cre­tion.”

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