In the first year of Donald Trump's presidency, few features of the American political landscape suffered as much as the environmental movement. In addition to the Trump administration's planned withdrawal of the United States from the landmark Paris Agreement, the White House has thrown the Environmental Protection Agency into turmoil, threatened wildlife conservation, endangered the future of environmental justice, attacked the nation's first fracking regulation, repealed President Barack Obama's carbon-cutting Clean Power Plan, ignored government climate reports, rolled back mining restrictions, and failed to enforce penalties for violating environmental rules.
The White House took another step on Thursday to loosen environmental regulations when it announced the repeal of the Obama administration's ban on offshore oil and gas drilling in U.S. coastal waters. The Trump administration plans to make 90 percent of currently available offshore waters open to drilling in the next five years, the New York Times reports. "We're embarking on a new path for energy dominance in America, particularly on offshore," Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said in a statement. "This is a clear difference between energy weakness and energy dominance. We are going to become the strongest energy superpower."
The announcement doesn't just rile up environmentalists for fear of a repeat of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Mexican Gulf; it's also an abuse of the government's regulatory power. Zinke himself is something of a cheerleader for the oil and gas industry: Last month, he defended the Trump administration's decision to shrink Utah's Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments by 1.1 million acres (or 85 percent), saying that "we listen to the voices of the people, not Washington, D.C., special interests." The next day, the Washington Post revealed that the uranium mining company Energy Fuels Resources had aggressively lobbied Zinke's deputies to shrink Bears Ears.
Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt isn't much better. Pruitt, a noted climate skeptic, has a well-documented history as a mouthpiece for oil and gas companies. In 2014, the New York Times published 84 pages of a 2011 correspondence between Pruitt and Oklahoma oil and gas conglomerate Devon Energy in which the company authored a letter "from Pruitt" to the EPA railing against the agency's natural gas drilling emissions estimates. This was likely a common occurrence: After becoming Oklahoma's attorney general in 2011, Pruitt raked in nearly $325,000 in donations from energy companies, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, authoring letters to the EPA and Department of the Interior lambasting the Obama administration's embrace of carbon emission regulations.
But what about the other civil servants who power the Department of the Interior and the EPA? Much like Zinke, the Interior staff has many ties to the oil, gas, and mining industries. Those ties are detailed by Dirty Deputies, a database that tracks the Trump administration's connections to the fossil fuel industry. (The Dirty Deputies project is ran by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, itself a "sister advocacy organization" of the progressive Center for American Progress.)
In the Department of the Interior, those connections include Assistant Secretary of Land and Minerals Joe Balash, a former Alaska natural resources official who in 2014 traveled to China, Japan, and South Korea with BP staffers to pitch a liquefied natural gas project; Preston Beard, an advisor in Interior's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and a former PAC manager for the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association; Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, who was a longtime lobbyist for mining, oil, and gas interests; and Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason, the former president of the industrial supplier Unifrax Corporation.
The EPA, steered by Pruitt, faces similar conflicts of interest: Erik Baptist, the agency's senior deputy general counsel, previously worked for the American Petroleum Institute; and Nancy Beck, a deputy associate administrator tasked with overseeing pollution prevention and chemical safety, worked for the American Chemistry Council, as did public affairs chief Liz Bowman.
The White House found the ultimate way to deregulate the environment—through the agencies tasked with monitoring it.