The U.S. Interior Department Has a New Mission: To Make Money

  • Zinke adviser says agency’s goal is to boost revenue
  • Agency has already eased regulations on private industry

The Colorado River wraps around Horseshoe Bend in the in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Page, Arizona.

Photographer: Rhona Wise/AFP via Getty Images

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 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.

Easing Rules

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 five-year offshore leasing plan finalized by President Barack Obama which 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."

Royalty Rates

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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