As Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke prepares to exit at the end of the year, and candidates for his replacement are in the mix to be announced before the Christmas holiday, Western Wire takes a look at some of the key policies he advanced that will likely continue under the next head of the agency. Revamping and modernizing the responsiveness of Interior and its sub-agencies, like the Bureau of Land Management, or seeking dedicated funding for maintenance backlogs at the National Park Service are policies promoted by Sec. Zinke that enjoyed strong, bipartisan support.
BLM Lease Sales And Streamlining Permitting
A record-breaking year for BLM quarterly oil and gas lease sales, led by New Mexico’s $1 billion haul in September 2018 alone, showcases the change in direction. Under the previous administration frequent protests and disruptions forced the agency to move, postpone, or cancel numerous lease sales.
Despite protests and a 2016 lawsuit by activists that attempted to halt the proceeds destined for New Mexico, BLM lease sales have continued as the mandated and regularly scheduled auctions delivered anywhere from a few hundred thousand dollars for states like Montana to half a billion dollars for New Mexico thanks to a booming Permian Basin.
The increase in lease sales is good news for state governments as well. Roughly half of the auction proceeds are delivered to respective state coffers, such as the $497 million delivered to New Mexico two weeks ago.
Increasing access and participation, and ultimately revenues, from BLM lease sales would mean little if the parcels were unable to be accessed, as the permits to drill the acreage fell further and further into the morass of bureaucratic backlogs.
“[W]e will look at ways to improve the process and make sure regulations serve their intended purpose rather than create a mountain of useless paperwork,” Zinke said in July 2017. “By streamlining approvals of responsible energy development on federal land, and actually holding lease sales, we will generate revenue for local communities and the Treasury to fund the things we all value like National Parks, infrastructure and education.”
Streamlining the process for permitting was key to accessing the additional revenues that the lease sales provided, and states like New Mexico were eager for Zinke’s policy directive to move the needle.
“But these applications aren’t just waiting a single day,” New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez told the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources in June 2018, noting that her state’s permitting period is a fraction of the length at the federal level, leading to enormous delays and large permitting backlogs at the New Mexico BLM offices. “The average approval time for BLM permits in New Mexico is 250 days, compared to just 10 days for the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to approve those same permits. This has created a backlog of more than 800 BLM applications.”
Backlogs leading to permitting delays added up to a $713 million loss for her state, Martinez estimated, in addition to a $1.3 billion loss for the federal government.
“A large share of our state’s oil and gas royalties support our public school system, and at a time when we’re fighting to turn around struggling schools and ensure that our school campuses are safe and secure, we shouldn’t be letting a single dollar slip away,” Martinez said, adding that the lease sale revenues and the subsequent oil and gas royalties derived from drilled permits funds many of New Mexico’s critical infrastructure and key services, including law enforcement and infrastructure construction.
In July 2017, Zinke issued a secretarial order to ensure that BLM—the agency entrusted for permitting and conducting the quarterly lease sales—would move swiftly to address the burgeoning backlog of more than 2,800 Applications for Permit to Drill (APD) that by the end of 2016 had reached a review period exceeding 257 days on average, well above the statutorily required 30 day limit.
In a memo from the Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of the Interior, dated November 7, 2018, a review of the “Major Management and Performance Challenges” facing the department found that the time for reviews of APDs had been reduced to 46 days on average, although it still faced a backlog of 2,500 APDs as of the end of 2017, according to its data.
DOI’s OIG suggested “[c]ontinuous improvements, including online submission of APDs, are needed to ensure a timely and accurate review process.”
Some of the continued backlog, despite improvements in average review period from 257 to 46 days, could be attributed to a large influx of new APDs, especially in the BLM’s busiest field offices.
2018 saw a big year in the jump in drilling permit applications for BLM field offices like that in Carlsbad, New Mexico, that serves the Permian Basin. The number jumped from 2017’s 813 permits filed to 1,533 by the end of October 2018 alone.
DOI Reorganization And Moving BLM HQ West
Among Zinke’s bold moves was to reassess the needs of his department and look to develop some sort of reorganization—12 “Unified Regions”—that would “reduce bureaucratic redundancy” and improve communication between the field and Washington, D.C.
“Our new Unified Regions will allow important decisions to be made nearer to where our stakeholders and intergovernmental partners live and work, and will make joint problem-solving and improved coordination between our Bureaus and other Federal, State, and local agencies easier,” Zinke wrote in August 2018.
Zinke’s earlier, watershed-based plan, had received resistance from the Western Governors’ Association, which had expressed deep concerns about the proposal. In response, Zinke collaborated and moved to a region-based reorganization plan based on state boundaries.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper shared those concerns with Zinke as he and others met multiple times in early 2018 to iron out details and discuss the reorganization of the Interior Department.
“As Western governors, we had given feedback to the original maps around the reorganization plan and are trying to look at ways we can make it more effective,” Hickenlooper said at the time.
The result, a hybrid of watershed- and state boundary-based regions, reflected that feedback. Susan Combs, Interior’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget, said the agency would enlist “teams” of senior Interior officials to foster “inter-bureau collaboration,” according to E&E News.
Combs pointed to the “Upper Colorado Basin” Region 7 that includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming as a key resource, given the 13,300 Interior employees living in those states.
“If we can reorganize this area very, very well, it can be instructive to the other 11,” Combs said.
That initiative, to shake up an entire Cabinet-level department, demonstrated a “different approach” to federal action, according to Hickenlooper, who was commenting on the reorganization plan in February.
Relocating BLM’s Headquarters Out West
Part of the reorganization planned by Zinke is to move the headquarters of BLM to the west, following a bill that U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) introduced in May 2017.
By July 2017, in notes gathered from E&E News, Zinke was well on the way to considering how and where the headquarters of DOI agencies like BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Reclamation could be moved.
A bipartisan raft of support for the potential move flooded in, as Hickenlooper said the relocated employees would receive a “warm welcome.” “It’s an ideal location and having them closer to the resources they manage makes good sense,” said Hickenlooper.
Other Democrats, like U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), agreed. “I’m all for it. I’m all for it, I think it would be great. I think anything we can get out of Washington, D.C. and into Colorado, I’m for,” Bennet told Western Wire in 2017.
Moving the headquarters of an agency is no easy task, with Zinke spending a great deal of his time meeting with local officials like those on Colorado’s Western Slope, who hoped to snag the relocated HQ and its thousands of employees.
Colorado’s Western Slope, and Grand Junction, Colo., in particular, make an attractive candidate for the move, based on Zinke’s repeated suggestions that a potential headquarters have strong quality of life, affordability, and employee attractiveness.
“Under this administration there is a genuine desire to work in partnership with local government leaders to come up with locally-driven solutions,” Christian Reece, Executive Director of Club 20, told Western Wire in May. “That’s ultimately the best way for the lands to be managed.”
An announcement on the location for the new BLM headquarters will be announced in the spring of 2019, according to the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.
Funding For National Park Maintenance
Among Zinke’s top priorities was the reduction of maintenance backlogs and investments in infrastructure for the National Park Service (NPS). The Secretary spoke frequently about “rebuilding our infrastructure,” including funds for the nearly $16 billion in Interior Department deferred maintenance, which includes $11 billion for NPS deferred maintenance alone.
In discussing the department’s budget for the upcoming 2019 fiscal year, Zinke said the prioritization of the NPS’s maintenance backlog required more than just a budget line item, but some other devoted revenue stream, such as a fund that derived revenues from energy development on public lands.
“All Americans should have the opportunity to enjoy a national park, but without an investment in our infrastructure to go along with the record-setting amount of visitors, we are loving our parks to death,” Zinke said in March.
Zinke campaigned through spring and summer, advocating for some form of a Public Lands Infrastructure Fund.
“I think as a Secretary, it’s a fair proposition that if you’re going to gain wealth through energy development—whether it’s oil and gas, or wind or solar on public lands, then you too should have an obligation to maintain and support those public lands in perpetuity,” Zinke said.
At an August visit to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, he re-emphasized the priority to keep NPS maintenance backlog at the top of mind for Congress.
“Everyone loves our parks. I think it’s time now to prioritize,” Zinke said in his second trip to the park. “The president is a builder, and we need to rebuild our park system for the benefit of everyone.”
The Restore Our Parks Act, which enjoyed bipartisan support, would have set aside revenue already derived from energy royalties from oil and natural gas, wind, and solar for an NPS and Public Lands Restoration Fund. The mandatory spending for five years would be used to “catch up” on deferred park maintenance, Zinke said at the time.
“We are all of the above. We think that is a sustainable, appropriate revenue source for our public lands,” Zinke added.
He praised the bipartisan nature of the Senate and House bills, even saying that despite his cynicism, the efforts to fund the nation’s treasured parks had even brought a tear to his eye.
Western legislators had spearheaded the maintenance bills. U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) cosponsored the bill, along with Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.). Zinke called the House version of the bill, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a “watershed moment” in bipartisan efforts to fund the parks’ crumbling infrastructure.