Coal Mines, Casinos, and Cocaine

by Bradford Plumer | December 16, 2008

The wild mess that awaits Ken Salazar at the Interior Department.

If the news reports are accurate, Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado has been tapped by Barack Obama to head up the Department of Interior. Let's hope he knows what he's getting into. After the last eight years, the Interior Department has become fairly dysfunctional, and this may end up being one of the most difficult jobs in the Obama administration—not to mention one that gets remarkably little attention. 

Looking back historically, the Interior Department has been a mess from the very beginning. It was created in 1849 essentially to handle the government's odds and ends, from exploring the West to conducting the decennial census to managing the D.C. jail system, and quickly became a massive patronage reservoir: Walt Whitman was famously fired from the department in 1866 by a reformer secretary trying to weed out sinecures. The public-land giveaways in the 1890s were frequently plagued by fraud--a precursor to the Teapot Dome scandal under Warren Harding--and the Indian Bureau has been criticized for corruption and inefficiency for as long as anyone can remember. 

During the 20th century, as the urban population increased and Americans started caring about parks and conservation, the agency's mandate shifted away from simply handing off public land to extractive industries and more toward preserving natural resources. But regulatory capture at the agency has always been a problem. Carl Pope, the director of the Sierra Club, explained to me that in the 1970s, the environmental movement was focused on reforming the "Iron Triangle," in which regulators were dominated by the industries they were supposed to regulate. "With the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, we were trying to break that triangle and create independent oversight mechanisms--like mandating public comments for new regulations," he said. But there was one place the reform movement left largely untouched--the Interior Department, which still operates under rules like the 1872 mining law, which still allows mining companies to stake claims in environmentally sensitive areas with little public comment. 

That means that more than most departments, what the Interior Department does really depends on who's sitting in the White House. Pope pointed out to me that, for instance, virtually all of the egregious EPA decisions under the Bush administration have been repudiated by the courts--such as its attempts to weaken mercury-emissions rules. But that's not the case for Interior, and never has been. During the Reagan years, James Watt was able to lease millions of acres of public land, weaken rules on oil and mining companies, and almost single-handedly rewrite strip mining laws. 

The current Bush administration has gone further still. Bush's Interior transition team, after all, included GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff and stuffed the department full of former industry officials, many of whom were unqualified to do the conservation jobs they were given. The key figure early on was deputy secretary Steven Griles, an ex-mining executive who flouted ethics rules by conferring with former coal clients over mountaintop mining and coal-bed methane drilling. (His meetings were discovered by Kirsten Sykes, a young staffer at Friends of the Earth.) Griles was eventually ousted after the Abramoff scandal, when it was revealed that he had pledged to block approval for an Indian casino that Abramoff was fighting to kill while the lobbyist poured money into a front group run by Griles's girlfriend. (Griles later served ten months in prison for obstruction of justice.) 

During the Bush years, Interior officials catered entirely to miners, ranchers, and loggers--and paid virtually no attention to conservation. The tone was set from the beginning, when the Bureau of Reclamation diverted thousands of gallons from the Klamath River at the behest of farmers, despite scientific findings that the diversions would lead to massive kills of endangered salmon and suckerfish. (Later reporting revealed that Dick Cheney had pressured the department to divert the water.) Bush's first Interior secretary, Gale Norton, interfered with scientific assessments of the impact on Arctic drilling, suppressed a report on mountaintop removal mining, and refused to list a single new endangered species. 

Again, the difference with what was going on in the EPA was stark--Jeff Ruch of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, whose group works with whistleblowers at both agencies, told me that at the EPA, scientific recommendations would simply be excluded from consideration by political appointees; at Interior, however, officials like Julie MacDonald, the deputy assistant secretary for Fish & Wildlife & Parks, would order the conclusions reversed. (MacDonald, semi-hilariously, resigned after it was revealed that, among other things, she was sharing internal agency documents with a teenage online gaming friend via his father's e-mail account.) 

Then, of course, there was the spectacularly sordid ongoing scandal at the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the federal agency that sells oil and gas collected as royalties from energy companies drilling on federal lands. As an inspector general's report revealed earlier this year, MMS employees were receiving thousands of dollars of gifts from the oil companies they were supposed to oversee. Stacy Leyshon, who had received $2,887 worth of meals, drinks, and golf passes from oil companies between 2002 and 2006, later allowed companies to revise their bids for oil after they had been awarded--118 amendments that cost the government $4.4 million. The manager of the royalty program was steering contracts to his outside consulting firm, all while buying cocaine from and sleeping with subordinates. This was all going on as taxpayers were being fleeced of billions of dollars thanks to royalty underpayments by oil companies, an undercovered scandal that has prompted a parade of suits by whistleblowers and auditors since the late 1990s.

Can Salazar clean out these stables? It helps that the Interior secretary has a lot of discretion to set the tone of the agency. During the Clinton years, then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt helped tilt the balance back toward preservation, pioneering the use of "habitat conservation" plans under the Endangered Species Act, and negotiating a federal land-swap to set aside Utah's two-million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante a national monument. But there was a limit to how "green" the Clinton administration could and would get. Even Babbitt occasionally told staffers to rewrite endangered-species recommendations to avoid fights with landowners and developers. And Jim Baca resigned as head of BLM in 1994 after an internal revolt over attempts to raise grazing fees on ranchers to promote conservation. "They grew up in a culture that said that mining and logging and livestock was the reason they were there, so it was their job to make it very easy and inexpensive for those extractive industries to operate " Baca declared when he left. 

Salazar, for his part, is a relatively green pick. He has an 81 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, and has been critical of the Bush administration's plans to expedite oil-shale drilling in Colorado and other Western states, on account of the environmental damage it would wreak. He's reportedly close to Obama, which will bolster his effectiveness, as will his longstanding ties to the American West. But he'll still have his hands full trying to balance the use of public lands with conservation, and overseeing everything from wildlife to mineral rights, from development to grazing. If his department begins listing endangered species that were neglected under the current administration, there will be an inevitable outcry from developers and landowners. He'll be under constant pressure to hand out oil and mining leases to companies accustomed to getting their way. And he'll be contending with agencies that are utterly broken, from MMS to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Jeff Rosen recently wrote in The New Republic about how whoever heads up the Department of Homeland Security will have perhaps the single most impossible job in the Cabinet. Salazar may have just landed the runner-up.

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