WASHINGTON (CN) – Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Thursday reiterated that no new oil and gas exploration will be allowed off the Florida coast, but said the Trump administration’s plans for other offshore areas won’t be announced until the fall.
Zinke appeared before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Thursday to discuss a wide range of budgetary issues. But his talk with lawmakers hit a rough patch when Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., grilled him over the Interior Department’s plans to open up waters around the U.S. for oil exploration.
Van Hollen told Zinke he felt the department’s decision to exempt Florida almost immediately after announcing the offshore drilling plan in January “looked very political.”
“Meeting with [Florida Governor] Rick Scott, making the announcement by tweet,” Van Hollen said. “I just hope Maryland and other states that meet those criteria get the same consideration.”
Zinke assured him Maryland was not in the path of offshore develpoment since it didn’t boast much in the way of actual energy resources but the secretary did not say whether or not this means the state would be exempt in the future.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., told Zinke he thought the Interior’s goals didn’t “match the reality” of its budget request.
He also expressed concern Zinke would rely too heavily on oil and gas leasing as a salve to the department’s financial woes.
During testimony, Udall noted a report from March from the New York Times.
The article featured communication between Zinke and other officials discussing the possibility of energy development within reconfigured boundaries at Utah’s Bear Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments.
Zinke denied the report, saying drilling wasn’t part of discussions he had about the monuments.
He also rejected any notion that the Interior would curtail safety standards for oil and gas developers.
“Offshore oil and gas is a greater risk. The industry understands that too. Nobody wants a spill,” Zinke said. “Our framework does not skirt safety, we increase it.”
Zinke also told lawmakers that it will be at least two more weeks before the Interior Department releases funding from the omnibus budget passed in March. He chalked up the delay to the “inefficient” grant system he inherited from the previous administration.
House Republicans proposed a $15.4 billion package touting a series of spending cuts Wednesday. None of the cuts fell on the Interior directly but for the 2019 budget, the cuts were more substantial.
The White House budget for 2019 rips 95 percent of funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, or LWCF, out of the budget.
LWCF provides matching grants to federal, state and local governments so they can acquire land or water for public use.
The cut, according to Zinke, will defray costs associated with a massive maintenance backlog which has plagued the Interior for years.
The Trump administration’s budget for FY2019 somewhat addresses this with its influx of $18 billion into public lands infrastructure.
That money will allow for a massive overhaul of the Interior Department, Zinke said. With $17.5 billion from the 2019 budget the Interior can finally address the alphabet soup of federal agencies that overlap responsibilities and make managing federal lands effectively “an impossibility,” Zinke said.
A single swath of land or a solitary river can be managed by the Department of the Interior, the Department of Commerce, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Agriculture and others at any given time, depending on the circumstances.
To unravel the chaos, Zinke told lawmakers he consulted with the U.S. Geological Survey, state governors and other senior officials within the Interior’s many offshoots. They arrived at one recommendation: break up the Interior’s management of the United States into 13 regions.
Specifics of the plan were sparse Thursday but Zinke assured senators he would deliver a proposal in two weeks after wrapping up meetings with state directors, employees and others.
He will also participate in a roundtable with environmentalist groups next week.
The current structure at the department hasn’t been overhauled in 150 years, Zinke noted.
Today, there is a $16 billion deferred maintenance backlog for all programs attached to the Interior, with $11.7 billion of it connected the National Park Service alone. Roughly $1.2 billion of the backlog stems from nation’s wildlife refuge system and a little under $1 billion accounts for Bureau of Indian Affairs schools which service 48,000 Native American students.
By managing federal lands through the 13 region plan and focusing on shared ecosystems, watersheds and wildlife instead of state borders, there’s a better chance the Interior can hack away at its backlog and stop neglecting dozens of parks, trails, roads and tribal schools, Zinke explained.
It would also address another crisis: the Interior’s rapidly aging staff.
Sixteen percent of Interior employees are at retirement age. In five years, the number will be closer to 40 percent.
With the restructuring, opportunities to shift staff around would more liberally, would also become an option.
Though lawmakers pushed Zinke for more information on costs associated with the proposal, the secretary said he “couldn’t give any numbers.”
“When we do have them, there is no doubt I will talk to this committee,” he said.