Reporters revealed today that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke placed phone calls to Alaskan Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan in which he threatened to abandon plans for increased oil drilling in the state if the Senators vote the wrong way on the disastrous GOP healthcare bill. Political commentators, rightly so, have immediately raised concerns, noting this is both a highly unusual and inappropriate action, and also potentially illegal.
On the very superficial surface (legality and threats to our democracy aside), this scenario appears to be a potential win-win. Murkowski votes no and helps kill a bill that if passed would mean millions of Americans lose their health insurance. Win for Americans. The White House punishes Murkowski by abandoning their dangerous plans to pursue expanded oil drilling and oil exports in Alaska. Win for the climate and communities.
But of course things are a lot more complex than that. This move by Zinke on behalf of President Trump exposes some truly dangerous views in the administration and should put Trump’s entire energy policy under further scrutiny, not to mention the administration’s scruples and care for our democracy.
Representative Raul Grijalva, the leading Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, has announced he will request a formal investigation. In a blistering statement, he said, “Threatening to punish your rivals as political blackmail is something we’d see from the Kremlin. Secretary Zinke’s willingness to deliver these threats speaks volumes about his ethical standards and demonstrates that Interior’s policy positions are up for political grabs, rather than based on science or the public interest.”
The Trump team sees oil as a tool to use in their destructive agenda, not a tool to revitalize communities. Plain and simple. If expanded Alaskan oil development were truly a game-changing economic boon for Alaskans, the Trump team would be loathe to use it as a bargaining chip to get their healthcare bill passed.
Remember Trump’s “take the oil” Iraq talking point on the campaign trail? It was a troubling talking point on many levels. This move by Zinke and Trump to pressure Murkowski is an extension of the thinking behind “take the oil.” To Trump, oil is a tool to achieve his political goals. It’s a reason to defeat ISIS. It’s a way to pressure Senators. What do we know it’s definitely not? A way to help communities.
This move by the Trump team shows that their plan to expand oil drilling and exports in Alaska is nothing more than another political trick. More Alaskan oil drilling has never been about increasing prosperity for Americans or Trump’s concern for Alaskans. It’s about increasing profits for Big Oil and it’s a bargaining chip to curry favor with their benefactors, friends, and political counterparts.
Here’s the reality of increased oil development and the resulting climate catastrophe in Alaska: Alaska is one of the states most at risk from climate change. Homes are sinking as the permafrost melts. Entire indigenous communities are relocating due to sea level rise. In Alaska, climate change is here now and changing the landscape in devastating ways.
This isn’t a game. The health and safety of communities in Alaska and around the country are not pawns to play with. When it comes to both healthcare and energy policy, we’re talking about human lives and communities at stake.