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Interior head says public lands can make U.S. a "dominant" oil power

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visits the New England Aquarium to hear the merits of a monument offshore of Massachusetts, part of his National Monuments review process, in Boston, Mass., June 16, 2017. Brian Snyder / Reuters1 / 2
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (C) tours a fort on Georges Island, part of his National Monuments review process, in Boston Harbor, Mas., June 16, 2017. Picture taken June 16, 2017. Brian Snyder / Reuters2 / 2

BOSTON — Boosting drilling and mining on America's protected federal lands can help the United States become not just independent, but "dominant" as a global energy force, according to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose agency manages about one-fifth of U.S. territory.

In an interview with Reuters, Zinke outlined his approach to development and conservation in America's wildest spaces, and discussed how that philosophy was guiding his review of which national monuments created by past presidents should be rescinded or resized to make way for more business.

"There is a social cost of not having jobs," the former Montana Congressman and Navy Seal said in the interview last Friday. "Energy dominance gives us the ability to supply our allies with energy, as well as to leverage our aggressors, or in some cases our enemies, like Iran," he said.

Former President Barack Obama, who oversaw a huge increase in domestic energy production during his tenure while strengthening environmental protections, had advocated reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

Obama had also adopted a policy to factor in a "social cost of carbon" emissions from burning fossil fuels — which scientists believe drive global climate change — in making decisions about regulation and land protection.

While total U.S. oil production has risen to near records in the past decade, the share produced on federal land has dropped to a fifth in 2015 from more than a third in 2010, according to federal data from the Department of the Interior.

The administration of President Donald Trump is seeking to sweep away many Obama-era environmental and climate initiatives to bolster the U.S. oil, gas, and coal industries.

Monument review

Zinke is in the midst of reviewing some 27 national monuments created since the 1990s and covering millions of acres of land mostly in Western states, as part of a plan by the Trump administration to expand development of public land.

Zinke was in New England touring the region's monuments as part of the review.

At least six of those monuments are believed to hold oil, gas, and coal potential.

Zinke issued his first major recommendation to President Trump on one of the monuments last week, a reduction in the size of the 1.35 million acre Bears Ears National Monument in Utah created by Obama in his last days in office.

Zinke told Reuters he is likely to take a similar approach to the other monuments, including the 4,913-square-mile Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the coast of Massachusetts — which is roughly three times the size of Montana's Glacier National Park.

It was created by Obama last September to protect whales and newly discovered coral formations.

During meetings with New England-based marine scientists, commercial fishermen and National Parks Service employees last week, Zinke argued that the Interior Department now makes around $15.5 billion per year less in revenue from offshore drilling than it did in 2008 due to Obama-era restrictions.

Last month Zinke signed an executive order to lift some of those restrictions. He told Reuters he wants increased revenue from offshore to be used to finance a backlog of repairs throughout America's national parks.

He was also in New England to gather input on the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine. He will later tour more monuments in Western states, and offer recommendations on all the monuments to Trump in August.

Economy first

On the last day of his New England monument tour in Boston, dressed in jeans and a belt with a cowboy style Montana buckle, Zinke met with officials and scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and New England Aquarium, followed by a roundtable discussion with commercial fishermen.

Zinke argued the recent use of the Antiquities Act by presidents to create national monuments exceeded the intent of its creator President Theodore Roosevelt because they block development on too much land around the specific monument sites.

Marine scientists gave Zinke a virtual tour of the Canyons monument at the New England Aquarium, and argued there was a need to preserve the area as a "reference point" to measure the impacts of climate change and overfishing.

Zinke later told Reuters he believed "there are legitimate scientific endeavors and research that are recognized and important (around the site), but there are also recognized livelihoods, fishing jobs that are also important."

During his tour, Zinke also fielded questions about the Trump administration's decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, a global pact to fight climate change. Zinke defended the administration's decision, calling the agreement a bad deal for the United States.

Zinke later told Reuters while the U.S. government should find solutions to adapt to changing climate, jobs are a priority. "If you don't have an economy you can't afford to put in the environmental protections you need," he said.

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