December 15, 2018 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has submitted his resignation. Jennifer Jacobs and Jennifer A. Dlouhy of Bloomberg News write of the reasons: “Concern about all the scrutiny and legal costs on the horizon were factors in Zinke’s decision to quit, said [sources] who asked not to be identified to discuss it.”

Zinke’s tenure has been marked by numerous ethics investigations; Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington summarized them earlier this year, and noted that several had  inconclusive results because “the Interior Department was found to have improperly documented important decisions that would later come under investigation.” My colleagues and I highlighted a few of the conflicts of interest in our recent Protecting Science at Federal Agencies report:

When nominated to serve as Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke failed to disclose that he held 1,000 shares in a private company that manufactures firearms and advanced weapons materials (Vardi 2018). Secretary Zinke and his top aides met with company executives in April 2017, his official calendar shows, and Secretary Zinke has signed secretarial orders and proposed a rule to allow more hunting and gun-carrying on public lands (Vardi 2018).

Like other senior political appointees, Secretary Zinke has also come under scrutiny for his use of costly flights. DOI’s Office of Inspector General determined that Secretary Zinke followed the policies for most of the chartered and military flights he took in FY 2017, but that a $12,357 charter flight from Las Vegas to Kalispell, Montana, likely would not have been approved if ethics officials had received complete information about it—namely, that the speech Secretary Zinke gave did not mention DOI. Another pertinent detail ethics staff lacked was that the speech was delivered to a hockey team owned by a donor to Zinke’s Congressional campaign (OIG 2018).

In July 2018, DOI’s inspector general announced an investigation of a real estate deal involving a foundation Zinke established and a development team that includes the chair of oil services company Halliburton. The deal could raise the land value of properties Secretary Zinke owns in Whitefish, Montana, and one of its major players could benefit substantially from decisions Secretary Zinke makes about oil and gas development on federal lands (Lefebvre 2018).

Although these kinds of actions are perhaps the most politically problematic for Zinke, the disregard for science that DOI exhibited under his leadership is also alarming. Earlier this month, the Union of Concerned Scientists released Science Under Siege at the Department of the Interior, which documents how Zinke’s DOI has systematically suppressed science, failed to acknowledge or act on climate change, silenced and intimidated agency scientists and other staff, and attacked science-based laws that protect wildlife. Scientist Joel Clement, who was reassigned from his position at DOI after he raised concerns about climate change’s impacts on Alaska Native communities and then blew the whistle on that agency action, highlighted some of the report’s key findings for Scientific American, writing:

Why is this administration so scared of science? Why cancel a study into the health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining so soon after lifting a moratorium on coal leasing on public lands? Why keep scientists from speaking with the press? Because, while science provides the best evidence we have for making policy decisions that serve the broader public, Ryan Zinke has been very clear that he is in office to serve the oil, gas and mining industries, not the general public.

Zinke’s departure may not make much of a difference in the agency’s attitude toward science that suggests limits on fossil-fuel extraction or combustion would benefit public health. Juliet Eilperin reported in the Washington Post last month that DOI deputy secretary David Bernhardt worked as a lobbyist for so many of the very businesses he now regulates that he has to carry a card listing all the conflicts for reference.

One thing that will be changing in January is Congress. With the House coming under Democratic control and new Senators taking seats, perhaps we’ll see more Congressional oversight of appointees’ conflicts of interest and agencies’ hostility toward science.

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