Interior Dept focused on expanding energy production in first year under Trump

The proposal to increase offshore drilling leases still faces public comment

— -- The Department of Interior's major agenda item in 2017 was fulfilling President Donald Trump's executive orders to expand oil and gas drilling in the U.S. in order to promote American energy independence.

The department announced a proposal to offer leases for drilling off 90 percent of America's coastline and plans to offer almost 77 million acres for offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, which officials say would be the largest sale of leases ever in that area. Secretary Ryan Zinke also ordered that the agency expedite issuing permits for oil and gas drilling on federal land. The department also held what it says is the second largest sale of leases for offshore wind energy, releasing more than 200,000 acres for development off the coasts of North Carolina and New York.

The proposal to increase offshore drilling leases still faces months of public comment and other procedural hurdles before becoming final. And it's up against political controversy as well-- after Zinke granted an exemption for Florida and its Republican governor Rick Scott-- triggering angry demands for similar exemptions from other coastal states.

But one of the past year's biggest controversies was more related to the country's approach to public lands than drilling. The president announced the administration will move to drastically shrink two national monuments in Utah and create several smaller monuments in their place, saying that they were designated by previous presidents against the will of local communities. The Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments have spiritual significance to Native American tribes who want them to keep their national monument status.

Groups that want Bears Ears and Grand Staircase to stay national monuments contend that the administration wants to allow mining that could threaten the quality of the land, especially areas with historical value like ancient dwellings and even dinosaur fossils going back to the Triassic period. But Zinke said the land will still be federally protected and that they have not seen any interest from oil and gas companies. Starting on February 2 the federal government will be allowed to issue leases on land that is no longer part of the monument but no lease sale on land that was part of the monument has been announced. There is a lease sale scheduled in March that will offer oil and gas drilling in the same county as the monuments.

Several lawsuits have been filed to block the changes claiming that the president doesn't have the authority to eliminate national monuments under the Antiquities Act. Zinke recommended changes to six additional national monuments and creating four new monuments, which are expected to be announced in 2018.

The department also faced fierce pushback on a decision from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow hunters to import trophies from elephants killed in Zambia and Zimbabwe, except for ivory which the White House said remains illegal when asked about the decision. The news faced strong backlash including from members of Congress and celebrities like Ellen Degeneres. The president announced he would put the decision on hold after the reaction and the Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing a court decision that called for them to review previous findings that would impact whether to allow hunters to import trophies from elephants.

The service began accepting permits to import trophies from lions killed in Zambia and Zimbabwe in October.

2017 wasn't all about policy for the Interior Department. Firefighters from agencies within Interior--including the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-- responded to the wildfires in California in October alongside firefighters from the Forest Service and local agencies. After wildfires in other western states earlier in the year, Zinke ordered local managers in charge of federal lands to take a more aggressive approach to preventing wildfires through activities like clearing brush and dead trees from alongside trails.

The department has actually increased its staffing since last year. As of September 2017, the department employed almost 68,000 people, about 4,000 more than in December 2016.

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