Today, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is returning to the Treasure State to discuss Payments In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) with local officials in Billings. The meeting will be held from 8:00 am until 9:00 am at the Stillwater building, Room 3108. If there is a quorum of city council members in attendance, the meeting would be open to the public under Montana open meeting laws.
In his first year as Secretary of the Interior, Zinke lost no time pandering to extractive industries: he met with his industry cronies at least 33 times in his first ten months as Secretary. Secretary Zinke has helped industry at taxpayers’ expense by eliminating rules that were bringing in millions of dollars in tax revenue.
“As long as he is taking the time to discuss the federal money that helps cities and counties make up revenue, Secretary Zinke should be apologizing for the millions of taxpayer dollars he and his Interior Department have wasted over his last fifteen months as Secretary,” said Western Values Project Executive Director Chris Saeger. “We know that programs like PILT and revenue sharing with our federal partners are critically important because they help maintain our roads and fund our schools. But it turns out that not just the feds, but also Secretary Zinke himself owe Western taxpayers money. Interior’s elimination of common sense rules that made industry pay their fair share, combined with his taxpayer-funded shenanigans, have resulted in an exorbitant waste of taxpayer dollars.”
Most notably, Secretary Zinke suspended the Methane Waste Prevention Rule, a rule that required oil and gas companies to limit the leaking of methane or flaring on public lands and to pay royalties on the methane captured. Since going into effect on January 8, 2018, the shelved rule has cost taxpayers $219,178.08 per day in wasted royalty revenue, adding up to $37,260,273 to date and a projected $800 million in lost royalties over the next ten years.
This waste could even be substantially higher, as just last week a study published in the journal Science found the rate of methane emissions from domestic oil and gas operations was 60 percent higher than previously estimated.
Secretary Zinke also eliminated the Hydraulic Fracturing Rule, a rule designed to increase the safety of fracked wells, which will cost taxpayers $289 million over the next ten years. Zinke also reopened a loophole that allows oil, gas and coal companies to avoid paying up to $75 million in royalties per year, by selling their products at an artificially low price to their subsidiaries and thereby avoiding paying their fair share of tax royalties. Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, the reopened loophole benefits one of Zinke’s industry buddies and former campaign donors, Cloud Peak Energy.
All of this departmental waste mirrors the personal waste Zinke has incurred as Interior Secretary. Just last week, released documents indicated that Secretary Zinke used his public office and government resources to butter up property developers as they were working on a sweetheart land deal in his hometown that he stands to gain from, causing Congress to call for an investigation into the Secretary’s private dealings. Zinke has also used taxpayer-funded trips to mingle with political donors, spent $139,000 on new doors for his office, and spent an as-yet-unknown amount of taxpayer money when he made his security detail accompany him and his wife on their Mediterranean vacation.
Secretary Zinke’s meeting with Billings City Council members comes as he’s been getting flack from Montanans: just yesterday the Bozeman Daily Chronicle Gazette published a scathing editorial which concluded that “significant evidence of clear conflicts of interest” suggest an “arrogant abuse of power.”