October 5, 2017

Zinke’s high-price flights, oil and gas news and upcoming public meetings

U.S. Department of the Interior, via flickr

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visited public lands in Utah before the department's public comment period on national monuments began

US. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is under investigation for his travel arrangements—again.

Earlier this week, the department’s Office of the Inspector General opened an investigation into privately chartered flights the secretary took, costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars.

This isn’t the first time Zinke has exercised (alleged) ethical lapses when it comes to air travel.

(It wasn’t until I read the Washington Post coverage of the fights, by the way, that I realized Zinke, a former Montana congressman, has close ties to California.)

As the New York Times reported in the run-up to his confirmation, he “improperly billed the government for travel to his home in Montana when he was a midlevel SEAL Team 6 officer in the late 1990s.”

He was punished for abusing his travel expenses, and according to the NYT,

His former commanding officer in SEAL Team 6, retired Vice Adm. Albert M. Calland III, who had never before discussed the matter publicly, said in an interview that it was “an easy decision” to hit Mr. Zinke hard over the travel claims, which came at a time when he was supposed to help prevent such abuses.

“I gave him a fitness report that I thought would not allow him to get to captain, and that seemed, in that regard, to work O.K.,” Admiral Calland said. Even though Mr. Zinke served in a succession of No. 2 jobs in special operations after that, “he never got command,” the admiral said.

Another retired vice admiral, Sean A. Pybus, who was Mr. Zinke’s boss after he left SEAL Team 6, said that Admiral Calland’s decision to cite Mr. Zinke for “lapses in judgment” in failing to set a proper example was a red flag for boards screening officers for coveted command jobs.

One of the secretary’s recent privately-chartered flights, from Las Vegas to Montana aboard a private plane owned by oil and gas executives, cost $12,375. A commercial flight would have been about $300.

Republican leaders of the House Natural Resources Committee, including Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, are even starting to ask questions, and have asked the Interior Department for information related to privately-chartered flights of Zinke and President Obama’s two previous secretaries.

This year, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has also taken privately chartered flights, costing a total of $58,000.

As Reuters reported, oil prices were dropping this week due to a global glut of supplies. And there’s a lot of new movement among oil companies in New Mexico.

Oryx Midstream Services plans to build a 220-mile long crude oil pipeline from Carlsbad to Midland, Texas and Exxon-Mobil has gained access to 22,000 more acres in the Permian Basin. Earlier this year, the company—whose former CEO Rex Tillerson is now U.S. Secretary of State—announced plans to invest $5.6 billion in the Permian, which includes Texas and New Mexico.

But some energy executives remain unhappy with business in the state. According to a story in the Albuquerque Journal last week:

Government regulations are also a challenge, especially red tape in approving drilling and right-of-way permits on federal lands. That’s particularly true in New Mexico, which has the most federally leased land in the U.S. for oil and gas production, Flynn said.

“Conservative estimates say New Mexico loses about $2.3 million in revenue per day because of those delays,” [New Mexico Oil and Gas Association Executive Director] Ryan Flynn said.

Prior to his job at the trade group, Flynn was the New Mexico Environment Department Secretary.

Speaking of Flynn, the Santa Fe New Mexican recently quoted him supporting the state’s newly proposed science standards, which omit references of human-caused climate change, promote the fossil fuel industry and “diminish” language around evolution.

The paper, like the Journal, failed to mention Flynn’s cabinet position, a detail that helps contextualize the administration’s actions and its close ties, across agencies, with the energy industry.

In other oil and gas news, Sean Spicer has been doing more than hobnobbing with Hollywood stars at the Emmys since being fired as White House press secretary.

He was the keynote speaker at the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s annual conference. According to DeSmogBlog, Spicer started by telling the crowd of shale industry executives:

“Before I begin, the one message that I want to make sure that you take away from my comments today, is that while I may not be in the White House anymore, I remain unbelievably confident that this industry has a huge friend in the Oval Office and throughout this administration.”

But wait! There’s more oil and gas news.

A study published this week in Nature Energy, a peer-reviewed journal, shows that half of all new oil production in the United States would be unprofitable if it weren’t for federal subsidies. In the Permian Basin, 40 percent of development wouldn’t be economically viable.

Lastly, even though this is technically Arizona news, New Mexicans will benefit from the research, too. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just awarded the Climate Assessment for the Southwest program at the University of Arizona $3.75 million to continue its research on climate change in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico.

Visit the program’s website here.

Public meetings and comment periods

New Mexico State Parks and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish are hosting an open house at Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park to discuss the potential transfer of the park to Game and Fish.
Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park
5000 Calle del Norte, Mesilla
Oct. 10, 6-8 p.m.

To submit public comment about proposed statewide science standards to the N.M. Public Education Department send an email or fax to rule.feedback@state.nm.us, or fax to (505) 827-6681 before 5 p.m. on Oct. 16. The agency will hold a public hearing on Oct. 16, as well.
Monday, Oct. 16, 9 a.m.-12 p.m.
Mabry Hall, Jerry Apodaca Education Building
300 Don Gaspar Avenue, Santa Fe

Until Oct. 20, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is seeking public comment on opening 26 parcels in northern New Mexico for oil and gas leasing. The draft environmental assessment is online here. Email comments to NMleasesalecomments@blm.gov with “March 2018 Lease Parcels” in the subject line or send them to Ross Klein, BLM New Mexico State Office, 301 Dinosaur Trail, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 87502.