Dear Secretary Zinke: Being a Good Neighbor is NOT “Un-American”

Can this administration be trusted with public lands?

In early 2015, the Bureau of Land Management reached an agreement with ConocoPhillips, one of the world’s largest oil companies, to allow drilling in a protected region of Alaska known as the National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A). The nearly $900 million project was expected to reduce a nearby Alaska Native community’s ability to hunt and feed itself, and the agreement included an $8 million ConocoPhillips payment that went toward mitigating its impacts. 

Twenty or 30 years ago this might not have made the evening news. Today, it’s become one of the biggest scare stories in the Republican rhetorical arsenal. The agreement has been compared to a Godfather-style “offer they can’t refuse” and described as the beginning of a slippery slope to outrageous government slush funds—none of which have materialized. 

The agreement was an example of a practice known as compensatory mitigation, a simple idea with a lot of potential. Under a compensatory mitigation agreement, if a private company is going to damage environmental, cultural, or historical resources in one location—something that happens every day, even when companies are careful—that company makes a financial contribution toward reducing or repairing similar impacts nearby.

The principle is straightforward. If you’re going to build an oil platform near a body of water—as ConocoPhillips was planning to do near a crucial site known as Fish Creek—you can’t necessarily keep that water pristine, but you can help restore a lake or river down the road. Most of us would call that common sense. Republicans on Capitol Hill now describe it as extortion, tyranny or worse. 

This kind of planning was used even before the ConocoPhillips deal made headlines. President Obama’s Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, published a secretarial order in October 2013 putting mitigation at the forefront of future energy development efforts on federal public lands. This thinking has shaped the future of solar energy in the West. In 2014, developers bid a total of $5.8 million to develop solar projects on more than 3,000 acres north of Las Vegas—a region that included a $1,836-per-acre mitigation fee that industry was happy to pay. 

Those days appear to be over. Last Wednesday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was quoted in theDenver Post saying of compensatory mitigation: “Some people will call it extortion. I call it un-American.” 

If Secretary Zinke considers reducing environmental impacts “un-American,” this administration can’t be trusted with our public lands. 

What is “un-American” about paying one’s fair share? What is “un-American” about reducing harm proportionate to the harm you cause? What is “un-American” about being a good neighbor and not passing on the full cost of your operation to the taxpayer? These values and principles are as American as they come.

Because the Obama administration implemented a few limited compensatory mitigation measures, the Trump administration is here to put it on the same level as the rest of its bogeymen. In the right-wing vocabulary, it’s on its way to becoming the environmental version of Obamacare—which, let’s remember, is now more popular than ever even as Republicans fight tooth and nail to destroy it. 

It was George H. W. Bush, not some wild-eyed tree-hugger, who tightened Clean Air Act standards for acid rain pollutants just a generation ago. His emissions cap-and-trade program followed exactly the market-based model Republicans claim to support—until, these days, they don’t. 

Back then Republicans and Democrats largely agreed that giving Americans a clean and healthy country to live in was an important goal. Stronger environmental standards weren’t the poison pill they are for today’s Republican Party. Times have changed.

I’m not sure how we get back to that point—or whether Republican leaders even want to try. This divide has implications not just for future policy, but for today’s discussions on Capitol Hill. If this administration and its allies in Washington don’t consider keeping our environment clean a worthwhile priority, debating different ways to get there is a waste of time.

Instead of working with industry, conservation experts, and his own staff to find a version of compensatory mitigation everyone can live with, Secretary Zinke is blowing the “un-American” dog whistle, deepening distrust of government and creating a conspiracy theory the facts don’t support. At the risk of mixing metaphors, calling an environmental cleanup tool “un-American” sends a message well beyond what Secretary Zinke may have intended—and it isn’t a bell you can un-ring.

By:  Ranking Member Raúl Grijalva
Source: SIERRA Magazine