Newly obtained internal agency documents show that the Department of Interior was focused on opening public lands for oil and gas exploration in Utah.
It all started in March 2017, when an aid for Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, asked a senior Interior Department official to consider shrinking Bears Ear National Monument in order to open more federal land up that contained oil and natural gas deposits.
Hatch’s office sent a map showing the requested boundary change for the souther portion of bears Ears monument to “resolve all known mineral conflicts.”
“Please see attached for a shapefile and pdf of a map depicting a boundary change for the southeast portion of the Bears Ears monument,” said the March 15 email from Senator Hatch’s office.
The emails claim that opening new land to oil and gas development on the land would allow the state’s public schools to lease out land to increase state funds.
This is in direct contradiction to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s claim that the review of National Monuments and the decision to shrink them was “not about energy.” In fact, the map sent to the official, sent about a month before the initiation of Zinke’s review of national monuments, was incorporated almost exactly into what became the much larger reductions proposed by President Trump.
Zinke claimed during a news conference last May on his visit to Bears Ears that, “We also have a pretty good idea of, certainly, the oil and gas potential — not much! So Bears Ears isn’t really about oil and gas.”
In August of last year, Zinke complained about the Antiquities Act stating, No President should use the authority under the Antiquities Act to restrict public access, prevent hunting and fishing, burden private land, or eliminate traditional land uses, unless such action is needed to protect the object.” Then in December he doubled down on his claim that it had nothing to do with oil and gas exploration claiming, “There is no oil and gas assets. There is no mine within the Bears Ears monument before or after, so the argument that President Trump stole land is false, nefarious and a lie.”
In December of last year, Trump announced the shrinking of Bears Ears from 1.35 million-acres to 201,397 acres – nearly 85 percent.
The documents also reveal the agency’s concerns over gaining access to the coal reserves in Grand Staircase-Escalante. One memo states, “The Kaiparowits plateau, located within the monument, contains one of the largest coal deposits in the United States,”with 11.38 billion tons “technologicially recoverable.”
Since then environmentalist groups have fought tirelessly against the modifications, taking the federal government to court.
The internal Interior Department emails were obtained by the New York Times after it sues the agency in federal court, along with the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale University Law School. The lawsuit states that the agency had failed to respond to open records requests from August that asked for internal records related to deliberations on shrinking the national monuments.