Today, Susan Combs, Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget at the Interior Department, is slated to testify on Capitol Hill to address the Trump administration’s proposed Interior budget, which slashes the department and public lands funding by some 16 percent, including, again, nearly zeroing about the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and proposes cutting some $581 million from the National Park Service.
“The Trump administration and Secretary Bernhardt’s Interior are really showing their true colors and values. Following the money, we see where their values lie: special interest corporate bailouts and public lands exploitation,” said Jayson O’Neill, Deputy Director of Western Values Project. “Trump’s abysmal budget bails out mining corporations, exploits our shared resources, and undermines America’s public lands and outdoor heritage. What’s worse? Interior is sending a conflicted character and known anti-public lands enthusiast up to Capitol Hill to try and defend the indefensible.”
Unsurprisingly, Interior’s proposed budget seeks to provide for the development of further oil and gas projects on public lands. Trump’s budget also includes some $1.5 billion in taxpayer-funded subsidies for uranium mining corporations. This is not the first time the Trump administration has proposed major cuts to Interior’s funding and zeroing out the LWCF.
Susan Combs is a Koch Industries alum who was confirmed into Interior’s top fold in June 2019. She’s long-had controversy swirl around her name, as a former employee at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), an organization heavily funded by Koch Industries and big oil companies. Her public financial disclosure report showed hefty investments in oil and gas corporations that stand to benefit from her work at Interior. Further, she has consistently worked to undermine the Endangered Species Act.
Combs’ colleague from the TPPF, now the Assistant Secretary for Insular and International Affairs, Doug Domenech, was found to be in violation of ethics rules by the Inspector General for discussing ESA rollbacks with TPPF.
This hearing is not only a chance for Congress to demand answers about the disastrous Trump administration budget proposal but from Combs herself, who, while representing Interior, should answer to the ongoing ethics investigation into Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the controversial Bureau of Land Management (BLM) move, the historic rollbacks to public lands protections, as well as many other outstanding issues before Interior that are impacting America’s wildlife, public lands, and national parks.
Outstanding Questions Susan Combs Must Answer:
1. Ms. Combs, you have been tasked with the reorganization effort at the Interior Department. How much money has the department and the BLM spent so far on the controversial relocation? What programs have Interior and the BLM pulled from to cover the cost of the relocation? The BLM move has long been criticized for lacking a purpose or plan. Interior’s talking points were riddled with political spin, untruths, and misleading points. Congressional funding was allocated to support the BLM but hinged on the promise that Interior provides “regular briefings to lawmakers on the controversial Bureau of Land Management headquarters relocation,” which has not happened. Interior and the BLM already received some $14 million tax dollars for the reorganization and relocation proposal. The department requested an additional $28 million ‘to continue implementing DOI’s vision for a reorganized Department, focusing resources on its new unified regions, moving headquarters staff west, and expanding the use of shared services.’ That funding was not authorized, yet the controversial BLM move and reorganization have plowed forward.
1(b). Ms. Combs, is it correct that this budget is reducing money allocated for sage grouse conservation by $27.4 million from last year? (p. IV-2). Is it correct that the BLM’s budget is being cut by around $144 million overall? (p. I-8). American taxpayers were told that moving the BLM headquarters to Grand Junction was in an effort to save them money. But fixed costs for office space rental are going up in the president’s 2021 budget proposal. (p. V-124) The BLM is slated to face major cuts across the board, but not in office space rental. Further, the new BLM headquarters is located in the same building as several oil and gas interests including Chevron, Laramie Energy, and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
2. Ms. Combs, given the widespread pushback around your own nomination, due to your conflicts of interest, massive campaign donations from the oil and gas industry, and tendency to side with industry special interests, how can American taxpayers trust you to push for a fair and balanced-used budget that will not exploit public lands and wildlife for the extractive industries that you are tied to? When former Interior Secretary Zinke resigned in disgrace, Combs was tasked with the department reorganization effort that Zinke began in an effort to push the Trump-era “energy dominance” agenda. Since joining Interior, Combs conflicts of interest have come into question, given that she owns six oil and gas leases that various oil and gas companies operate on.
3. Is your boss, Interior Secretary Bernhardt, still under investigation by the Interior’s Inspector General? What is the subject and extent of that investigation? Do you personally believe that taking action that disproportionately benefits a former lobbying client violates ethics laws and Trump’s ethics pledge? How is it beneficial to taxpayers when Interior’s political appointees’ railroad career experts on decisions that favor their former clients? It is critical that Combs speak to Sec. Bernhardt’s outstanding reputation as the Trump administration’s most conflicted cabinet member. While his supposed “recusals” expired in August of 2019, he has repeatedly been involved in and sided with his former clients on particular matters. With Sec. Bernhardt still under investigation by Interior’s Inspector General for his involvement in this particular matter and other ethical issues, does Ms. Combs see Sec. Bernhardt as a reliable and trustworthy leader?
4. How can Americans believe Interior’s top-tier officials when they say they don’t want to transfer or privatize public land? Will you personally reject calls from extremists in the West for the wholesale transfer of title or management of federal public lands to the states? Will you commit to American taxpayers to discontinue hosting anti-public lands extremists at Interior facilities? In a recently-obtained video, Myron Ebell, an anti-public lands extremists, spoke at an official Interior event. With top political appointees looking on, including Combs, Ebell said that the “ultimate solution” was to privatize America’s public lands. Combs touts her own history and resume of working closely with industry special interests, and her bend towards decisions that tend to favor oil and gas developers. Further, Sec. Bernhardt has continued to fill Interior with longtime, anti-public lands advocates like William Perry Pendley and Karen Budd-Falen. His actions have not ensured faith that his goal is to protect America’s public lands – in fact, they’ve achieved the opposite.
5. How much have efforts to suppress or alter science cost American taxpayers? What will you do to assure the American people that the Interior is not wasting taxpayer money to suppress and manipulate science in order to benefit the president’s or your allies in extractive industries? There have been numerous instances of science and fact suppression within the Trump administration as a whole and within Interior more specifically. In 2018, the director of USGS, James Reilly, appeared to have asked scientists to “gin up” emissions figures so that he and other political appointees could “craft a narrative that forest protection efforts are responsible for wildfires, including in California, even as science shows fires are becoming more intense largely because of climate change.” Emails show Interior officials attempting to measure carbon emissions from wildfires so that they could push a false narrative that wildfires cause more carbon pollution than fossil fuels. In 2017, then-Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Katherine MacGregor ordered the acting head of OSMRE to cancel a study examining the health impacts of mountaintop coal mining. New reporting also revealed that Interior promoted a known-climate skeptic to a top position within the department, who had been inserting inaccurate climate uncertainty language into agency policies.
6. President Trump’s budget proposal reduces funding to Interior by 16% overall, but provides almost $2 million in new funding for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) processing and litigation, is that correct? In January, Sec. Bernhardt signed Order No. 3378, which creates a “Departmental FOIA Office,” within the Office of the Solicitor and puts all FOIA personnel under the direct authority of the new office, correct? Why did Interior decide to create an additional layer of bureaucracy to litigate on overdue FOIAs, rather than putting these resources directly into clearing the FOIA backlog? Order No. 3378 further consolidates the Interior’s FOIA program under a political appointee Solicitor Daniel Jorjani. Further, Interior’s FOIA program is currently under investigation by the Inspector General for allowing political appointees to tamper with FOIA requests. Previously, an NPS FOIA officers’ flagged the difficulties of the political awareness review process and told their superiors that it delayed document production. Western Values Project has been forced to file numerous lawsuits after Interior failed to fulfill public document requests within the statutorily required timeline, including a recent suit for Bernhardt’s communications with his former clients. Litigating public records requests instead of fulfilling them in the statutorily required timeline wastes taxpayer resources.
7. How can the Trump administration justify using $1.5 billion in tax dollars to bailout uranium mining corporations when the proposed budget slashes national park funding by over $580 million and the department by some 16 percent? Will Interior and the Trump administration commit to upholding the mining withdrawal and protecting the Greater Grand Canyon Area from uranium mining? Will Sec. Bernhardt’s former client, Ur-Energy, benefit if Congress approves this bailout? Did Interior recommend that the president reduce Bears Ears as a favor to mining interests? Were you aware of the documents indicating the economic benefits of these monuments before the decision was made to shrink the monument? The Trump administration asked Congress for $1.5 billion over 10 years to create a new national stockpile of U.S.-mined uranium. Energy Fuels Inc. (EFI), a foreign uranium mining corporation, has been one of the main mining corporations seeking taxpayer subsidies for uranium mining. In response to the 2020 budget, EFI announced it was selling stock and putting the nearly $17 million in proceeds into its mining operations in Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, Texas and elsewhere. EFI spokesman Curtis Moore said they plan on opening a mine about 15 miles from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim entrance. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler represented EFI as a lobbyist. The corporation also helped sell the Trump administration on cutting the size of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah to open more land up to mining, and oil and gas development. Meanwhile, the Utah BLM, touted the economic and scientific benefits of Utah’s national monuments. Interior’s own recommendation noted that “Comments received were overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining existing monuments.” Ur-Energy, formerly represented by Bernhardt, joined with EFI in petitioning the Trump administration for a uranium import quota that was denied but would ostensibly benefit from the proposed $1.5 billion in taxpayer subsidies.