Got Science? Podcast | Episode 24 A Retreat from Science at the Department of Interior

January 9, 2018

Sally Jewell, former Secretary at the Department of Interior, talks about the Trump administration’s effort to rollback scientific and conservation safeguards.

In this episode Secretary Jewell...

  • Describes the wacky steps that took place in her transition from working in the private sector to working as the Secretary of Interior.
  • Talks about the strategies and areas of focus of the current administration and the challenges from past administrations that we're still working to undo.
  • Explains why unfettered access to public lands is a big loss for companies and what it means for development.
  • Tells us her favorite wildlife refuge.

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Full Transcript

The US Department of the Interior is responsible for the management of federal lands and natural resources…although if you were judging the office solely on its current leader, you might think its job was to sell off federal land to the highest bidder. Since the appointment of Secretary Ryan Zinke, we’ve been wondering just how many regulations and protections Interior can undo under President Trump. To help us get a better understanding of the department, and what an Interior secretary can and can’t do, we were lucky enough to talk to the last person who had the job.

Sally Jewell headed the Department of Interior under President Obama starting in 2013. A pragmatic conservationist, Jewell worked to expand solar and wind energy on federal land, protect more land from development, and get more Americans into public parks. Before that, she was CEO of the outdoor-gear company REI, which she turned into a multi-billion dollar enterprise.

Sally Jewell joined our correspondent Derrick Jackson to talk about why she’s not too worried that Secretary Zinke will undo everything she accomplished… how rolling back regulations willy-nilly isn’t actually good for businesses… and how asking her to choose her favorite federal wildlife refuge is like asking her to choose her favorite child.

Derek: Thanks Colleen and thank you Secretary Jewell for coming in and talking with the Union of Concerned Scientists today. Let’s start off with what things were you most proud of in your tenure?

Secretary Jewell: You know, I was new to government when I took this role, I came from the private sector. And it's fair to say that joining the administration but joining interior particular was a real drink from a water main, let's not even say a fire hose. You know, we're working with public lands, 20% of the lands of the United States all of the Outer Continental Shelf. So, I think oil and gas leasing and the Gulf of Mexico or wind energy in the Atlantic. We're working with upholding trust and treaty obligations to our nation's indigenous people, working with upholding science in everything we do through the USGS, Bureau of Reclamation, and then all the agencies like the Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, BLM and others.

I'd say that I'm most proud of the people that I worked with in the incredible work that they do. I think as a private sector person coming into government, I didn't really know what to expect and I was blown away by the talent of the researchers, the committed public servants, those who are serving the public on a day-to-day basis, those who were upholding our trust and treaty obligations to tribes, incredible people. And I'm proud of having their back as they took risks to move our nation forward.

We did some great stuff, I think, around landscape level planning pulling up saying, "What are the areas that are most important to conserve? What are the areas with the highest potential for economic activity whether it's oil gas or minerals or renewable energy? How do we deconflict our public lands in the future so that we are prioritizing developing in the right areas and taking areas off limits that are really critical?" So, I'd say that that's a very proud accomplishment, that and I think a focus across all the federal agencies of engaging the next generation.

Derek: And you, needless to say, had an unusual unique path to being an Interior Secretary you weren't a politician, you were CEO of a major outdoor company, how did you get into the path that you led you be Secretary of Interior?

Secretary Jewell: You know, it's really interesting, Derek, the fact is the common thread between the wacky steps I've taken in my career from being a petroleum engineer in the oil and gas industry to a banker to working at REI to interior has to do with the work I did that I was never paid for, and that is the work I did in nonprofit service. Whether it was education from Seattle Public Schools to small private school to the University of Washington, to social services like the YWCA or working with business leaders to end global poverty, to environmental organizations like the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust in my home community of Seattle to, you know, the National Parks Conservation Association, all of those gave me an opportunity to meet people and work with people that I never would have known professionally.

And really, my last job as Secretary of Interior was a result of two people one involved with me in global poverty reduction and the other involved with me at University of Washington, that we're working together in support of President Obama and raising money for him, and they threw my hat in the ring without me even knowing about it. And as you look at each of the wacky steps I've taken in my career, that has been the common thread. So whether it's people volunteering to support of Union of Concerned Scientists or other organizations that align with their interests and their values, when you do that, you roll up your sleeves not only does it fill your heart, but it also opens your eyes and opens opportunities you never knew would be there.

Derek: Well, speaking of values, there has been a change of that obviously in the Interior Department, what things or issues are most troubling to you at this time and what things should the public be really focusing in on as this administration rolls back so much, attempts to roll back so much of the work that you try to do?

Secretary Jewell: You know, I think what extremely frustrating to me with the Trump administration and, you know, Secretary Zinke and what's happening in interior is it feels to me to be a real retreat from science, a real retreat from the incredibly hard work and important really obvious things happening on the landscape that relate to changing climate. I also think the only area of focus that they seem to have is undoing what we did. I don't see a strategy, proactive strategy for what they want to do. I see a proactive strategy for undoing what we did.

I'm a business person, I started in oil and gas and when we worked thoughtfully across landscapes, for example, with the Sage Grouse Initiative, and I wouldn't expect your listeners to know what that is, but let's just say one of the largest if not the largest landscape level, collaborative landscape level conservation efforts across the American West to provide certainty to industries like oil and gas. And these are the areas that are not critical habitat that have high oil gas potential that makes sense for you to lease and develop, and these are the areas that are really important as part of the Sagebrush Sea ecosystem. For not just the sage-grouse which is potentially a species that could be listed on the Endangered Species Act, thereby resting control from the States and putting it with the federal government, these are areas that really should be off limits. And so let's work together so you've got certainty on where you can make your 30, 40, 50-year investments. And let's have certainty on the areas that should be off the table, so you don't waste your time and effort leasing land in these areas that could be undermined because they are critical habitat.

We had companies at the table. We had governors at the table. We had state fish and wildlife or Fish and Game agencies all working with us. And I was talking to a governor, Republican governor of a western state where oil and gas is very important who said, "This review by the Secretary Zinke's directed to take a look at all the sage-grouse work has just introduced a note of uncertainty that's making the oil companies very upset." Because they're saying to the governor, "We had a deal. What's going on and why is this being looked at again? We worked hard to come to these compromises so that we knew where we could invest."

Oil and gas leases when they are let are there for a very long time. There were oil and gas leases let during the Reagan administration under Secretary of Interior James Watt. That we're still undoing right now. If it took us 30 years to undo what Secretary Watt did? How much time is it gonna take to undo things that are not thoughtfully being done right now. And I just hope that the companies are smart enough to recognize that this is not a good business investment for them. If the landscapes have not been understood in terms of their importance for conservation, water quality, air quality, ecosystem services that are at risk through their activities and may slow them down.

Derek: Do you have any notion of a four years of either unfettered access or the strong signal that this is going to be unfettered access. How much that would've delay, impede the United States with our climate change goals let alone local pollution and whatnot?

Secretary Jewell: Frankly, I'm less worried about unfettered access to public lands having a massive impact on climate change. Because I think that states and municipalities and frankly even oil companies are waking up to the fact that the economics are changing. Companies will recognize that if there is in fact unfettered access, that doesn't mean that they're going to have a green light to be able to develop. They still have to abide by the National Environmental Policy Act and do an environmental impact statement. They don't wanna be snarled up in court with nonprofit organizations that are looking out for other interests whether those are environmental interests from, say, water quality, air quality, whether they're endangered species interests or, say, tribal interests. They don't wanna spend their time in courts. So, I think that there is less risk to that.

Derek: Department of Interior is a bit of a misnomer given all the oceanic assets that you're in charge of. Were you surprised when the Trump administration continued the offshore land leases such as Kitty Hawk?

Secretary Jewell: I was delighted that they didn't undo that because I think that is a signature of accomplishment and I will give credit to my predecessor Ken Salazar for starting wheels in motion and from the people at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for taking the lessons that we learned in leasing the Outer Continental Shelf in the Gulf of Mexico and in other parts of our coastal communities for oil and gas development. To say what have we learned from that and how can we apply it to an energy future that includes renewable, so I'm delighted that happened.

I'm not surprised that it happened because it is in the economic interests of many businesses and in the economic interests of states that are both run by Republicans and Democrats, and I think there would be a heck of a pushback in Congress if they had backed away from it. Because, what's not to appreciate about a thoughtful strategy for increasing our renewable energy resources and driving jobs and economic activity in the United States, in fact, going counter to that would be counter to the words of this administration, so I'm very happy that they're staying the course.

Derek: Yeah. Now, your successor Ryan Zinke has been quoted as saying that he's being judged by how many regulations he can whack. And so, of the regulations that whether it's methane and drilling operations or something that's even more important to you, what regulations do you see this administration trying to rollback that really, really concerns you?

Secretary Jewell: Thoughtful regulations that have been done right, and we did a number of them, take into account a lot of different points of view, and they strike the balance between the importance of economic success and a clear path to an economic future and appropriate environmental protections or protections for, people resources and so on. Fracking regulations took, I think, seven years, anyway, a lot of years, to roll that back, introduces uncertainty to businesses because they will get sued if they aren't following thoughtful practices. If they aren't disclosing chemicals and managing their flowback fluids, and they run a real risk of environmental damage if they don't have wellbore integrity. Those are the key elements of that rule that Secretary Zinke has said the administration is going to review. If you look at states that have been doing this a long time like Wyoming and Texas and Oklahoma, they've actually got some decent rules in place. And we worked to not supplant those rules but to say the baseline minimum standard, if the federal rule of the state rule is stronger than the state rule will apply, so you don't have to competing rules.

But there are many states particularly in the east where hydraulic fracturing has opened up say the Marcellus Shale, I mean, shale formations that were previously uneconomic where the states have not got a well-developed regulatory structure, and we have had no standards in those states. So, I think it's a mistake for industry to roll these things back and yet that is what they are doing.

Likewise, they've rolled back regulations on the Federal Coal Program, we had at least said when you are selling coal and you're paying a royalty to the federal government and state governments, half of it goes to the states in that case.

We wanna make sure that the royalties are paid on what you're actually receiving from the coal. What coal companies have done is they've sold it to a related company for, say, a dollar a ton, and then that company has sold it on to an exporter for, say, $10 a ton. They pay a royalty on the dollar and not the $10. That is a regulation the Trump administration has rolled back that just screws the American taxpayer. And the only rationale I can see for that is that they are being highly influenced by the coal industry.

So, it's frustrating but we live in a more transparent country than some, and these things will see the light a day. And I think what will happen is a backlash from the public that says this is not okay. And I don't think that's good for business, business want certainty. So, any number of things this administration is rolling back, you know, will certainly slow down the process but if it's a regulation there was a rollback by Congress and they did some rollbacks like the Stream Protection Rule for coal mining. If it wasn't rolled back by Congress, actually, the administration has to go through the same process of undoing it that we had to go through to do it to begin with, and it's not going to be fast and I take some comfort in knowing that.


Derek: One aspect of interior that is often under the radar is not under my personal radar as a birdwatcher and kayaker is the National Wildlife Refuge System and talk about being underfunded. People talk about national parks but the Wildlife Refuge System often gets even less love in terms of funding. What's your favorite refuge?

Secretary Jewell: Oh, you know, I love all my children equally. There are extraordinary refuges and, you know, I'd say on, you know, one bookend it would be the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge which is phenomenal and I'll quickly say that I had the privilege of flying from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska cross the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and then all across the Canadian Arctic. And the only place where I did not see the hand of man was in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There was not anywhere out of 38,000 feet out the window in Canada where I did not see a mine, a road, a seismic line the entire expanse of Canada, that is something incredible and something that we need to respect and care for.

And the urban refuges that are now getting more love from the Department of Interior I hope that continues are bringing the outdoors in nature into the everyday lives of children in urban areas where green spaces and nature are feeling harder and harder to connect with. I took about 25 Harvard students out to Parker River National Wildlife Refuge about an hour away from Boston. I think maybe one had ever been to a National Wildlife Refuge. It wasn't on their radar and it's sure on their radar now. So, urban refuges like new ones that are being created like Albuquerque Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge there was an old dairy farm. And the students from the school in the local Bernalillo County were helping design the refuge and they're working with the county to use it as a storm water runoff filtration system before the water goes on into the Rio Grande.

Derek: One of the reasons I brought up the refugees because a lot of science actually gets done and in the refuge system. What science of note that for whatever reason, what's science of note has been done of refuges that really we should remind people that we shouldn't take these lands for granted?

Secretary Jewell: You know, I got so many examples so I'm just gonna bring out a couple here. One is on the East Coast, Superstorm Sandy just in, you know, one fell swoop over a matter of hours helped the world and certainly the eastern seaboard understand the value of natural ecosystems. Wetlands, dunes, sages, grasses that absorb a lot of the storm's fury, the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey absorb 22 miles of debris and I went out there. You could see, you know, barrels of chemicals and diesel tanks and, you know, washing machines and God knows what all washed up on that seashore but the communities behind protected.

In that refuge they've been doing a lot of science on subsidence and on, you know, sediment or biological material transfer, and they knew the before and after the storm, and the impact of the storm but also the impact inland. The USGS in advance of Superstorm Sandy did a detailed LiDAR analysis of the likely area of the storm's landfall. And they could see exactly what happened with the storm and they could show people exactly what happened when you did have natural barriers and habitat relative to a built environment that was right in harm's way and it was extraordinary.

So, those prescient scientific efforts have helped us understand that as we look to build resilience in the face of a changing climate, that Mother Nature can teach us some valuable lessons. As the wildlife refuges and national park, actually Everglades National Park and Wildlife Refuges in Florida look at the migration of the mangroves and they are migrating because of that, you know, changes in, you know, water chemistry and so on, that those mangroves are essential in protecting shoreline communities from coastal erosion.

So, I mean, I could go on and on and on but the science that's happening on the landscapes whether it's done by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the BLM, other agencies has really been essential in figuring out, "Okay, what do we do now that we do have a change in climate, that we're going to have to adapt while also trying to mitigate our impact?"

Derek: What aspect...what accomplishment that either you personally saw or inherit from Secretary Salazar, you know, took so much work to do and yet probably it's not, for whatever reason, not really appreciated by the American public that is so critical to keep and to maintain?

Secretary Jewell: Yeah. I think it's so hard to pick one thing but given that this is the Union of Concerned Scientists, I'm gonna talk about really leveraging today's technology to make smarter decisions about our public lands and waters that I think will pay dividends for generations to come. With incredible mapping capabilities, with satellite data that we have with the benefit of hindsight from mistakes made in the past, we can now look at the landscape across public lands, private lands, state lands and understand more about what's at stake what's here and why is it important to us.

I used the example of the sage-grouse earlier, the Sagebrush Sea people used to think of as empty and not important. We now understand that it's critical habitat for over 300 species of animal that are important for all kinds of reasons to all kinds of people. Now, we know because of the science, the areas that are important to set aside for conservation and the areas that are less important. Now we know through thoughtful landscape level planning in the California Desert, the Nevada Desert the areas with great solar energy potential or geothermal or wind energy. The potential corridors for transmission lines, juxtaposed against the areas that are important for human beings in terms of their viewscape, the areas that are important for endangered species like the desert tortoise, the areas that maybe could be brought back for their historic values as a migration corridor for the big horn sheep. These are things that we could actually leave our environment in better condition for our children, grandchildren and generations to follow by applying the science and applying mapping and current techniques so that we understand what's there and we can just make smarter decisions.

And when we work together to do that and it takes years and years, but when you sit across the table from businesses and they then understand how their activities can adversely impact these things or where they can be a constructive partner and build their brand and build their reputation, you end up with those scenarios where people work together for a common good. And I believe we achieve that in a number of ways in the sage-grouse plan and the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan in California, in solar energy zones that my predecessor worked on in the Nevada Desert.

In the Bipartisan Cooperation we had with governors of Wyoming and Nevada and Montana and Colorado and other western states that said, you know, "We're all in this together, how can we have a future that we're proud of?" And how can we achieve economic objectives like extractive industries or grazing or timber production and to the extent there needs to be mitigation for that do that in a really smart way, as opposed to just on a localized way in landscape planning gave us the opportunity to do that. So, lots more things I could talk about with regards to water and Indian tribes and which I'm proud of but I think given your audience, it's one people probably don't know much about, but will be, I think, a gift that keeps on giving.

Derek: Secretary Jewell, thank you so much for your time and coming in UCS today. I wish you luck.

Secretary Jewell: I do have to say how much I appreciate the Union of Concerned Scientists for standing up for the critically important work that is being done in this country and around the world that is helping all of us understand what's at stake with climate change, with future generations, with communities that may not have the voice that they should and of course with the critters that have no vote or voice anywhere.

So, thank you for your good work and for your supporters out there. I encourage them to keep up their support, keep up their engagement, keep teaching children science, keep advocating for that at a local level, it makes an enormous difference. So, it's been a privilege to have this opportunity to join your podcast. Thank you.