Trump Cabinet picks offer hope for environmental progress
While each of President Trump’s Cabinet picks will be important if he’s truly going to make America great again, none will have a more direct bearing on improving U.S. energy security than his choices for the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Department of State (DOS).
Both Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), Trump’s nominee to run DOI, and Rex Tillerson, Trump’s DOS nominee, have accomplished resumes pro-liberty, pro-business Americans should be impressed by, but they also have some areas of concern.
Zinke, has been a strong advocate for American energy independence and has fought the Obama administration’s moves to limit coal, oil, and gas production on federal lands. Zinke comes from a region of the country in which the federal government owns much of the land and often imposes its will on state and local governments. He has seen firsthand how federal mismanagement of national forests, grasslands, and parks has led to environmental destruction, local economic decline, and wasted federal resources.
Zinke readily acknowledges the reality of climate change, but argues the extent of human involvement in it is uncertain and the threat it poses has been overblown by President Barack Obama.
Zinke has pushed for greater local, state, and tribal control over federal lands and resource decisions, such as timber management and fossil-fuel production, which is important because as interior secretary, Zinke will be in a prime position to reform federal land and wildlife policies in ways benefitting the environment and people.
There are also some positions Zinke holds that are worthy of scrutiny. Zinke rejects the idea much of the land under federal ownership should be turned over to the states or the people therein, and he supports fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which the federal government uses to buy more land.
There is no constitutional justification for the federal government owning one-third of the land in the United States and more than half of the land in Western states, as it currently does, much less bringing more land and resources under federal ownership. Bad management decisions have been endemic to federal land and resource management agencies since their inception—which have occurred under both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations and under Democratic and Republican Congress.
I hope with experience Zinke will come to recognize it is the institutional incentive structure stemming from federal ownership itself, not the personnel at the agencies, that is the source of the environmental and economic harm resulting from federal management. Devolution of federal land ownership is the only long-term solution to the environmental harm and economic malaise plaguing states in which the federal government controls a large percentage of the land.
Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, has an accomplished career in the private sector. As head of ExxonMobil, the largest privately owned energy company and the eighth-largest company in the world (according to revenue), he successfully steered Exxon through the volatile highs and lows of the oil market. Exxon does business in hundreds of countries, and in most of those nations, the energy supplies are controlled by government officials. The great deal of experience he’s had working and negotiating with foreign leaders makes him well prepared to successfully negotiate trade, military, other geopolitical deals that will be in the best interests of the Trump administration and the American people.
Tillerson’s record isn’t perfect, however. For instance, Tillerson’s position on climate change is troubling. While running Exxon, he reversed the company’s official stance on climate change. Under his predecessor, Lee Raymond, Exxon adopted the view humans are having, at most, a minimal role in climate change. Under Tillerson, Exxon stopped funding climate realists and instead took the position humans are a significant contributor to climate change.
As reported by the Financial Times, Tillerson, speaking on behalf of Exxon at an Oil & Money conference in London in October, said, “We share the view that the risks of climate change are real and require serious action.”
Consistent with this view, Tillerson supports the Paris climate agreement, saying in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which approved his nomination, “I think it’s 190 countries have signed on. We’re better served by being at that table than by leaving that table.” Tillerson, if confirmed as the next secretary of state, would be the only member of Trump’s cabinet who supports the Paris Agreement.
Since the Paris climate agreement forces greenhouse-gas emissions cuts on the United States while allowing America’s largest economic competitor, China, to continue growing its emissions for, at a minimum, 16 years, it is unclear to me how hobbling U.S. businesses’ ability to compete in the global economy against top geopolitical and economic rivals will “make America great again?”
To be fair, Tillerson’s position on climate change may simply reflect pragmatism. At the time of Exxon’s climate change reversal, the company was being sued for denying climate change and was operating under the anti-fossil-fuel Obama administration.
Serving under Trump, Tillerson’s views may evolve, and even if they don’t, Trump, not Tillerson, will have the final say on foreign policy matters.
The ineptitude of Obama’s DOS and DOI department heads resulted in horrible foreign and domestic policy blunders, which have left America less safe and less competitive, so despite my concerns, based on their past efforts, I believe Zinke and Tillerson will improve the performance of their respective agencies, to the benefit of all Americans.
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. is a research fellow on energy and the environment at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.
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