Overnight Energy: Inspector general finds Zinke used taxpayer-funded travel for family | Interior says Trump appointee won't be new watchdog | EPA chief says agency taking climate report 'very seriously'

Overnight Energy: Inspector general finds Zinke used taxpayer-funded travel for family | Interior says Trump appointee won't be new watchdog | EPA chief says agency taking climate report 'very seriously'
© Greg Nash

WATCHDOG FAULTS ZINKE: Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeWatchdog: Trump official boosted former employer in Interior committee membership Overnight Energy & Environment — Biden makes return to pre-Trump national monument boundaries official Want to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump MORE violated department travel policies by bringing his family members in government-owned vehicles, the agency's internal watchdog concluded on Thursday.

The Interior Department's inspector general (OIG) found in a new report that Zinke and his wife Lolita brought a Park Police security detail on a vacation, costing more than $25,000, though there was no policy prohibiting it.


Despite a policy stating that people not engaged in government business cannot ride in Interior vehicles, "we found that Secretary Zinke's wife and other family members had occasionally ridden with him in government vehicles," OIG investigators said in a their report late Thursday.

The report said that despite the prohibition, the Interior solicitor's office approved Zinke's family's travel "on a case-by-case basis."

OIG investigators also found that Zinke had asked Interior employees to designate Lolita Zinke as a volunteer for the agency, which would allow her to travel in official vehicles without approval or reimbursement.

Zinke decided against the appointment due to the "optics," but denied that it was to get around travel rules, OIG said.


Interior's response: Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift framed the Thursday report as an exoneration.

"The Inspector General report proves what we have known all along: the secretary follows all relevant laws and regulations and that all of his travel was reviewed and approved by career ethics officials and solicitors prior to travel," she said.

"Additionally, the secretary received the same exact legal advice from the solicitors as previous secretaries and he acted consistently. The report even said so."

After investigators started looking into the issue, Interior changed the travel policy to allow family members on official trips.

In the four official trips that investigators probed, Lolita Zinke and another family member reimbursed Interior for the costs of her travel.

Read more here.


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The IG report came as the department pushed back on another controversy.


BLAME GAME: A top Trump political appointee from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is not going to take over as the Interior Department's top watchdog, Interior said, contradicting HUD Secretary Ben CarsonBen CarsonRace is not central to Rittenhouse case — but the media shout it anyway Trump endorses primary challenger to Peter Meijer in Michigan Sunday shows preview: Frustration runs high as infrastructure talks hit setback MORE.

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said Thursday that Carson was wrong last week when he told staff that Suzanne Israel Tufts, HUD's assistant secretary for administration, will become Interior's acting inspector general.

The Hill first broke the news after obtaining the email, which was then cited in numerous news reports, and confirmed at the time by HUD spokesman Jereon Brown.

"HUD sent out an email that had false information in it," Swift said in a statement.

HUD officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Swift's statement, nor did the White House, which would be responsible for the inspector general appointment.

Tufts's reported appointment raised objections among Democrats and good-government advocates, who argued that a political official in the Trump administration -- who worked for President TrumpDonald TrumpOmar, Muslim Democrats decry Islamophobia amid death threats On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Trump cheers CNN's Cuomo suspension MORE's election campaign -- is too conflicted to be a watchdog.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is under numerous investigations by the office of the inspector general, including ones into his wife's travel and reports that he negotiated a business deal that involved the former chairman of oil service company Halliburton Co.

Swift said Tufts was referred to Interior by the White House as a potential candidate for a position in the IG's office. But "at the end of the day, she was not offered a job at Interior."

She blamed the media for reporting incorrect information.

"This is a classic example of the media jumping to conclusions and reporting before all facts are known."

Interior's denial came two days after reports were first published on Tufts new job.

Read more here.


Why it matters: Tufts' reported appointment was eyebrow raising because IG's are meant to be politically unbiased due to the nature of their watchdog work. With Tufts' background having worked on the Trump presidential campaign, and her lack of investigative experience, her appointment would have been very unconventional. But Tufts' chances at the IG office aren't all gone. The White House could still unilaterally appoint her to the position without Senate confirmation, since she was previously confirmed for her role at HUD. Stay tuned for any movement there, which would ultimately have to come from the White House.


EPA SAYS ITS TAKING UN CLIMATE REPORT 'VERY SERIOUSLY': Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler said Thursday the agency is taking a recent United Nations report on the dire future of climate change "very seriously" while touting a number of new EPA rule changes that critics say will only worsen emissions.

Speaking at a signing event with the Israeli ambassador on cross-country environmental collaboration, Wheeler pointed to new data that found emissions dropped across the U.S. by 2.7 percent in President Trump's first year in office.

"The 2.7 percent reduction shows what an advancement in technologies can do in the private sector without government intervention stepping in. I think that's very important," Wheeler said.

The numbers released Wednesday by the EPA found that between 2016 and 2017 emissions had a notable drop, continuing a downward trend since 2007.

Energy sector experts have largely attributed the emissions decline to increased usage of cleaner-burning natural gas as the fuel became cheaper.

The acting EPA administrator was pressed Thursday on the agency's role in addressing the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which warned that current efforts to mitigate global warming were not enough to stop the earth's temperature from rising 1.5 degrees celsius overall.

Wheeler responded by pointing to a newly proposed agency regulation that scientists have largely labeled as a weakening of Obama-era policies.

The EPA chief said the Affordable Clean Energy rule proposed in August as a replacement to the Obama administration's landmark Clean Power Plan (CPP) "would allow more flexibility."

Read more here.


ROUND TWO - ADMINISTRATION TRIES AGAIN TO STOP YOUTH CLIMATE SUIT: The Trump administration is once again asking the Supreme Court to halt a case brought by a group of young Americans claiming that the federal government needs to do more to confront climate change.

Justice Department attorneys filed their motion with the high court on Thursday, less than two weeks before a landmark trial is set to begin in federal court in Oregon.

As part of a series of last-ditch efforts, government attorneys are also renewing their calls for both the trial court and the San Francisco-based Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to stop the case while the original judge considers their motion to delay the trial.

"Absent relief from this court, the government imminently will be forced to participate in a 50-day trial that would violate bedrock requirements for agency decisionmaking and judicial review imposed by the [Administrative Procedure Act] and the separation of powers," government attorneys wrote to the Supreme Court, asking for a rare "writ of mandamus" to stop the proceedings.

"Moreover, in contrast to the obvious harms to the government, respondents can make no credible claim of imminent, irreparable harm," the lawyers representing the administration argued.

"Their alleged injuries stem for the cumulative effects of CO2 emissions from every source in the world over decades; whatever additions to the global atmosphere that could somehow be attributed to the government over the time it takes to resolve the pending petition are plainly de minimis."

Read more here.


FORMER TOP EPA ETHICS LAWYER JOINS ALSTON & BIRD LAW FIRM: Kevin Minoli, former EPA principal deputy general counsel, is joining the Washington, D.C. office of law firm Alston & Bird LLP as a partner. After having worked at EPA since 2000 in various roles, Minoli will lead the office's Environment, Land Use & Natural Resources Group, according to a company announcement Thursday.

"He is keenly attuned to the environmental compliance challenges facing business and industry and adds a new dimension to the value we bring clients and underlines our position as a nationally recognized environmental practice," said Doug Arnold, a partner in the firm's Atlanta office and co-chair of the firm's national environmental practice.

Minoli said the move was a chance "to join one of the country's preeminent destinations for environmental law."

"This is not a change I took lightly. In moving to Alston & Bird, I made the choice to join one of the country's preeminent destinations for environmental law and to take the skills I have learned in solving problems for clients inside EPA and use those skills to help solve problems for clients who have business in front of EPA."



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Check out Thursday's stories ...

-Trump official won't be new Interior watchdog, agency says

-EPA taking UN climate report 'very seriously,' agency chief says

-Trump admin again asks Supreme Court to stop youth climate lawsuit

-Trump administration opens door for California offshore wind farms