Embattled US Interior secretary, who championed expanded Arctic oil development, resigns abruptly

Ryan Zinke's efforts to open more of Alaska's Arctic waters to oil and gas drilling will live on.

By Yereth Rosen - December 18, 2018
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke steps from Air Force One as U.S. President Donald Trump arrives in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., December 4, 2017. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters File Photo)

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has spent his two years in office pushing for new oil development across Arctic Alaska’s lands and waters, is leaving his post amid a series of investigations into alleged corruption and ethics breaches.

Zinke, in a statement, blasted what he said were “fictitious allegations” against him.

“I love working for the president and am incredibly proud of all the good work we’ve accomplished together. However, after 30 years of public service, I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false accusations,” he said in the Dec. 15 statement.

The resignation is effective at year’s end.

Alaska political leaders lauded Zinke for his work to expand oil development in Alaska, especially the state’s Arctic regions.

“Over the past two years, Alaska has had no better friend than Ryan Zinke. He joins the ranks of Gov. Wally Hickel as one of the great Secretaries of Interior,” Sen. Dan Sullivan said in a statement. Hickel, a former Alaska governor, served as Interior secretary during the Nixon administration. Sullivan’s statement praised Zinke for “reversing the previous administration’s illegal lock-ups of Alaska lands which hurt thousands of working men and women and their families. . . Secretary Zinke’s impact at the Department of Interior has been immense.”

Newly elected Gov. Mike Dunleavy, just returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., said in a statement that he met with Zinke there “and was deeply impressed with his grasp and understanding of Alaska and its people.” Zinke’s accomplishments include “opening ANWR to safe exploration,” the governor said, referring to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, who was chairman of a national parks advisory board that resigned en masse in January to protest Zinke’s policies, had the opposite take.

“Teddy Roosevelt can now rest in peace,” Knowles said in an interview.

Knowles said Zinke undertook an “agenda that harmed the principle of stewardship of our national parks and our wildlife refuges” and “rejected science and climate change.”

While Zinke’s apparent successor, Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, may be “a long-time lobbyist and representative of oil and minerals extraction companies, at least we won’t be faced with the hypocrisy of somebody claiming to be Teddy Roosevelt,” the former governor said.

Under Zinke, the Department of the Interior’s Arctic policies stressed oil and gas development. Shortly after entering office, Zinke in 2017 issued a secretarial order requiring the department to prepare for oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and for wider oil development in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, or NPR-A.

“The only path for energy dominance is a path through the great state of Alaska,” Zinke declared on May 31, 2017 at an Anchorage conference held by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

The Republican-led Congress in late 2017 opened the refuge to oil development with a provision in a sweeping tax bill that requires lease sales there. Interior’s Bureau of Land Management is now drafting an environmental impact statement to pave the way for leasing to start as early as 2019. The BLM is also reviewing a plan for seismic exploration in the refuge that would start this winter.

The BLM has also launched a formal process to lift Obama-era oil-development restrictions in the NPR-A, a land unit that extends nearly 23 million acres across the western part of Alaska’s North Slope. The Obama-era plan barred oil leasing in about half of the reserve, including lands around Teshekpuk Lake, an area crucial for migratory birds and other wildlife but believed to be highly prospective for oil.

A Dec. 12 lease sale held by the BLM for available acreage in the petroleum reserve drew about $1.5 million in high bids for 16 tracts.

Yereth Rosen is a 2018 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow.