Fossil fuel industry's hopes rise with Trump nominee

Fossil fuel industry's hopes rise with Trump nominee

President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE appears poised to open the door to new fossil fuel development on public lands, a shift that has industry groups salivating.

Trump has tapped conservative Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke to lead the Interior Department, and the two have said they want to expand energy development on government lands.

That would be a marked change in direction for Interior, where President Obama and Secretary Sally JewellSarah (Sally) Margaret JewellOvernight Regulation: Senate panel approves driverless car bill | House bill to change joint-employer rule advances | Treasury to withdraw proposed estate tax rule | Feds delaying Obama methane leak rule Overnight Energy: Dems take on Trump's chemical safety pick GOP chairman probes Zinke’s charter plane use MORE sought to more tightly regulate such projects.

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Both Zinke and Trump have generally been supportive of federal land ownership — a stance that puts them out of step with the Republican position those holdings should be sold off or given to the states. But the two are also eager to greenlight new energy projects.

“[Zinke] gets the fact that there are many public lands that are meant to be set aside for conservation only, but that the vast majority of public lands in the West are working landscapes,” said Kathleen Sgamma, the president of the industry-funded Western Energy Alliance. “He understands that balance.”

Trump and Zinke have been staunch critics of many of the key energy initiatives developed by Obama’s Interior Department. They are likely to start their push to expand fossil fuel development in public areas by undoing administration rules on the coal and drilling sectors.

“My plan includes the elimination of all unnecessary regulations, and a temporary moratorium on new regulations not compelled by Congress or public safety,” Trump said in an energy speech during his campaign.

“This means opening federal lands for oil and gas production; opening offshore areas; and revoking policies that are imposing unnecessary restrictions on innovative new exploration technologies.”

Trump said he opposes the Obama administration’s halt of coal leasing on public lands and its review of the coal royalty program. He's also opposed a proposed rule to restrict coal-mining activities near rivers and streams.

Zinke's state, Montana, is among the country’s top coal producers on public land, and the lawmaker also opposes both those Obama policies.

The mining industry, which says the initiatives threaten jobs and coal production, hopes it's among the first on the chopping block when Zinke takes over the Interior Department.

“I think a fair surmise is that a Trump administration will have a broader impact on the entire fossil energy sector by restoring an ‘all of the above’ energy policy for the federal government, one that has served the country well for generations with low-cost energy, and end Obama’s ‘keep it in the ground’ regulatory policy,” Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association industry group, said in an email.

American fossil fuel energy production has boomed over the last decade, thanks to the expansion of hydraulic fracturing and expanded drilling on private land.

But fossil fuel development on federal lands was down about 21 percent in 2014 from a decade earlier, according to the most recent figures from the federal Energy Information Administration.

Republicans and the fossil fuel industry blame regulations for that decline, and they have trained their sights on Obama administration environmental rules throughout his presidency.

They see Trump, who disregards the scientific consensus behind climate change, as an industry ally, thanks to his promise to increase coal, oil and gas production as president. Zinke will be his point person for that on federal lands, and the fossil fuel industry cheered his appointment last week.

The American Petroleum Institute said Zinke “knows the great potential that our federal lands hold when it comes to developing our nation’s energy resources.” The Independent Petroleum Association of America said he will push “multiple-use policies” that will help “safe, responsible energy development.”

To help the drilling industry, Sgamma said one of Zinke’s first targets should be a Bureau of Land Management rule designed to cut methane leaks from natural gas operations.

She also predicted Zinke and Trump will prioritize energy development on public lands the federal government has already leased out to companies, rather than expand the land on which companies can drill or mine.

“It’s nice to not have an administration that is thinking to drive productive users off of public land,” she said. “It’s nice just to be able to stop the bleeding.”

Conservationists, though, say they are hopeful they can work with Trump and Zinke when they take office, noting their support for federal land ownership.

They also caution that Trump's big energy plans might not roll out as planned.

Conservationists say the fossil fuel industry’s output is likely to be driven significantly by the open market, and that Trump’s decisions could end up leaving some fuels in the lurch.

Coal production has fallen because natural gas is prevalent and cheap, driving down prices. If Trump works to expand drilling, that’s likely to hurt coal mining, and vice versa.  

Oil and gas companies are “sitting on tons of leases that aren’t producing right now,” said Aaron Weiss, a spokesman for the Center for Western Priorities.

“They can complain all they want ... But they’re the ones controlling how much and where they’re drilling right now.”

Conservationists aren't sounding many alarm bells about Zinke, especially compared to other Trump selections like Scott Pruitt for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Weiss said Zinke has to answer for sending some mixed messages on public land ownership: A pledge he signed in his 2012 Montana lieutenant governor’s race and a handful of votes taken in Congress don’t align with his otherwise-stated support for maintaining federal land holdings.

But he’s seen as a better pick than other Westerners floated for the Interior spot.

Observers and Zinke allies say his views are influenced by the large number of his constituents who use the state's public land for hunting and fishing but also work in its natural resources industries.

"Ryan and I have fly fished together. He is an avid outdoorsman and sportsman," Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said in an interview.

"He also believes that we should responsively develop our national resources. ... Montanans want to enjoy their public lands, but during the week, they need a job."

Daines predicted a "smooth" confirmation process for Zinke, especially compared to other Trump nominees. 

But Zinke's backers in the conservation sphere said they'll keep a close eye on what he and Trump do once in power. 

Land Tawney, a Montanan who heads the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers sportsmen's group, endorsed Zinke to head Interior. But he said he and his group are ready to push back on efforts to expand fossil fuel development in the West. 

“We will have that conversation,” he said. “We will continue to have that conversation.

"It’s important that hunters and anglers stay vigilant. We knew that going in.”