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  1. Opinion

A Washington Post editorial: Zinke's arrogance

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke listens during a Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, D.C., on December 20, 2017. (Chris Kleponis/Polaris/Pool/Abaca Press/TNS) 1221614
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke listens during a Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, D.C., on December 20, 2017. (Chris Kleponis/Polaris/Pool/Abaca Press/TNS) 1221614
Published Jan. 25, 2018

Is Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke cynical or incompetent? Those are the options after his capricious treatment of states that object to his plan to open oil and gas drilling off their coasts. (There's also: [c] both of the above.)

Two weeks ago, Zinke suddenly announced that he was exempting Florida from his plan to open practically all of the country's coastline to offshore drilling. The surprise came only a few days after Zinke rolled out the drilling plan, and immediately after a brief, personal meeting Zinke had in Tallahassee with Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a likely GOP Senate candidate who would benefit politically from securing an exemption.

In the ensuing weeks, no other state has secured an exemption. We asked Zinke's staff what explains the discrepancy between the treatment of Scott and every other governor, and spokeswoman Heather Swift replied, "Creating a five-year program is a very open and public process, and Secretary Zinke looks forward to meeting with governors and other coastal representatives who want to discuss the draft program." In other words, Zinke has no reasonable explanation.

It looks as if Zinke gave Florida exclusive attention and a hasty exemption to help Scott in his coming Senate campaign. Then, because the Trump administration is still committed to a drill-baby-drill policy, the interior secretary subjected every other coastal governor to a longer and less responsive process that may or may not lead to further exemptions.

The alternative explanation is no less damning. Zinke may not have anticipated the blowback that giving Scott extraordinary help would elicit. This includes possibly potent legal objections that the interior secretary's decisionmaking was arbitrary and the drilling plan therefore invalid. The firestorm, which a rational deliberative process would have prevented, deterred Zinke from offering any more on-the-spot exemptions.

Zinke's own arrogance, at the head of a powerful federal agency, is intolerable. He is not the king of the Interior Department, and the nation's waters are not spoils he can open or close on a whim. Whether politics or carelessness, or both, drove the Florida exemption fiasco, the rest of the nation's governors — and its citizens — deserve answers.