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)

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.

BY Ryan Driskell Tate

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

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 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 ne’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.


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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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