Late last month, before President Donald Trump ordered an about-face on federal climate change policies, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had a few minutes to speak to a gathering of members of Congress and industry executives. Encapsulating the Trump administration's disdain for Barack Obama's approach to climate change, Zinke said, "You know, our nation can't run on pixie dust and hope, and the last eight years showed that."
The event was thick with symbolism. Rather than sign the executive order in the Oval Office, as he usually does, Trump joined Zinke, Vice President Mike Pence, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., where much of the Obama climate agenda was crafted. The White House invited a dozen coal miners, who stood behind Trump as he signed the executive order outlining myriad rollbacks to climate change initiatives and promoting fossil fuels. "We love our coal miners," Trump said. "I made them this promise. We will put our miners back to work."
But even some coal executives are skeptical that Trump's promises can be fulfilled. Low-priced natural gas is outcompeting coal, and increased mechanization makes it unlikely that the tens of thousands of coal workers laid off in recent years could return to work. Robert Murray, founder and chief executive of Murray Energy, a large coal company, recently advised the president about this. "I suggested that he temper his expectations," Murray told the Guardian. "He can't bring them back."
That reality check won't stop the Trump administration from trying. With a secretarial order, Zinke immediately lifted a moratorium on leasing federal lands for coal mining and stopped a three-year review of the federal coal program launched by his predecessor Sally Jewell. About 40 percent of the nation's coal comes from federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The review was intended to evaluate whether Americans get a fair return for that coal and how climate change should figure into decisions about leasing coal. Zinke called the moratorium and review "unnecessary" because the law already requires extensive environmental analyses of individual leases.
It's not clear that lifting the moratorium will have much immediate effect. With coal production down and many coal companies bankrupt or in financial distress, companies have not been clamoring for new leases. Zinke acknowledged as much to reporters in a press call March 29: "There has not been a rush in the last few years for coal leases; some of it has been market, some of it has been an uncertain regulatory environment."
Zinke's measured tone stood in contrast to the triumphant rhetoric about how Trump's order would end the war on coal and bring back coal jobs. "We'll see where the market goes," Zinke said. "We don't favor one source of energy over another. We just want it to be market driven." His comments showed the new Cabinet secretary creating an independent voice for himself in an administration over which the White House seems to want to exert tight control.
In another secretarial order, Zinke set tight deadlines for his staff to scrutinize policies that may hamper energy development on public lands. He gave agencies two weeks to identify policies tied to Obama's executive orders on climate change and mitigating the impacts of energy development on wildlife and other natural and cultural resources. He set a deadline of 30 days to decide whether to review or rescind those policies, and 60 days to have any replacement policies drafted. The goal, the order states, is to "better balance conservation strategies and policies with the equally legitimate need of creating jobs for hardworking American families."
Zinke also kicked off the process of rewriting or striking four Obama administration oil and gas rules. One, which regulates hydraulic fracturing on public lands, is stuck in the courts already. The others regulate drilling in national parks and wildlife refuges and limit companies from wasting methane through leaks and intentional flaring of natural gas on public lands.
During the press call, Zinke was asked whether and how he would consider climate change impacts when making future decisions, considering that Trump's order cancels guidance on the social cost of carbon. Zinke said that the agency will be "transparent" as it figures out its new methodology. But he stressed: "The social cost of not having a job is important too."
Ignoring climate change impacts could ensnare Zinke's Interior Department in the courts. A series of rulings in recent years require agencies to account for climate in environmental analyses of major actions. "They can't just throw up their hands and say we don't care, we don't want to, or we don't believe in it," said Nada Culver, senior counsel of the Wilderness Society.
Like Trump, Zinke insists the administration values clean air and clean water, as well as jobs. "My intention is to be the steward over the majesty of our public lands," Zinke said during an interview with Fox News on March 29, "and make sure we can make wealth and jobs on some of it."
This story was originally published at High Country News (hcn.org) on March 31.