On June 28, the US Senate confirmed Robert Wallace as Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks within the Department of the Interior, which oversees the country’s natural lands and resources. A Wyoming native, Wallace lives in Teton Village, near the partially glaciated Grand Teton National Park, where he has previously worked as a park ranger. He has also been a Republican staffer and a lobbyist for General Electric. In his new position, he will oversee the nation’s parks, including many of its glaciated regions.
Wallace’s appointment is the latest in a department whose appointees under the Trump administration, most of whom are ex-lobbyists from the energy industry, have raised alarm in the environmental community. Ties between energy interests and Department of the Interior officers are so ubiquitous that Western Values Project, an organization that advocates for national parks conservation, created a website called the Department of Influence that documents “the revolving door between special interest lobbyists and political appointees at the Department of the Interior.”
The regulations and policies of the Department of the Interior have an impact on glaciers. The Interior approves and rejects proposals to open the country’s natural lands to oil and gas drilling. Drilling for and burning natural gas adds to global warming, harming glaciers. Allowing drilling near glaciers is even more hazardous, since the dust associated with these operations can darken the surface of glaciers and accelerate their melting.
“Depending on the estimate, anywhere from twenty to twenty five percent of remaining U.S. [fossil fuel] reserves are on federal public lands,” Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental NGO, told GlacierHub. “And the climate reality is that we cannot beat global warming if we burn those fossil fuels.”
Led by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, an ex-lobbyist for oil and gas who carries a list of his conflicts of interest, the Department has already opened up 17 million acres of federal lands to be leased for oil and gas. Meanwhile the firm where Bernhardt worked, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schrek, has quadrupled its business related to the Interior since Bernhardt took office.
“We have given the keys to these agencies to people whose whole life mission has been to not promote the agency, but to profit off the agency and to have the agency weakened,” Bill Snape told GlacierHub. “This is the definition of the fox guarding the henhouse.”
With its powers over oil and gas projects on public lands, the Interior Department is the hot seat of the battle between those who want to drill for natural gas on public lands and those who would like to keep them off-limits, according to Snape. Rob Wallace is going to be sitting right in that seat.
“There are massive risks to drilling in the Arctic,” Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity, told GlacierHub. The Arctic National Wildlife Reserve provides a home for a variety of species, including polar bears and bearded seals. Drilling “risks oil spills that would be impossible to clean up,” devastating wildlife and landscapes. Arctic ice is especially important to protect since it reflects the sun’s energy back into space, making it critical for regulating the global climate.
Beyond the risks of an oil spill, drilling in the Arctic–and anywhere else–means more greenhouse gases. “Science tells us that all known fossil fuel reserves in the Arctic must stay in the ground if we are to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change,” Monsell said. Opening the Arctic to drilling will “add more fuel to the fire and increase sea ice loss.”
Wallace will be in a position to weigh in on this issue. His job will include taking a stance on whether to open up public lands to oil and gas leasing, and if so, where.
Additionally, it is the responsibility of the Department of the Interior to carry out research on climate change. But under the Trump administration, the Department has “established a clear pattern of suppressing science and scientific evidence, particularly when they run counter to the interests and priorities of the coal, gas, and oil industries,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The Department’s strategic plan for 2018-2022 does not mention climate change at all.
Snape, who has known Wallace personally for 20 years (their children were classmates in elementary school), has hopes that he might do his job differently than Bernhardt. Although the two disagree on various issues, Snape told GlacierHub, “I think that Rob Wallace is someone who believes in the truth… I do believe Rob will make decisions that he thinks are best for the country and best for the resources. I do think that he cares.”
The Department of the Interior did not respond to requests for a comment or an interview with Wallace.
Wallace graduated in 1971 from the University of Texas at Austin with a B.S. in petroleum engineering. He worked as a park ranger at Grand Teton National Park before co-founding the Grand Teton National Park Foundation. He was Assistant Director of the National Park Service in the seventies, and in 2015 he co-founded the Upper Green River Conservancy, a pro-environmental organization that advocates for the protection of the habitat of sage grouse in the Upper Green River watershed in southwestern Wyoming. The Conservancy is a company of i2 Capital, an impact investment firm of which Wallace is an operating partner.
He has also had a political career as a staffer for several Republicans. He was chief of staff for Senator Malcolm Wallop, who was one of the few senators to oppose the 1987 Clean Water Act. He then worked as the Republican Staff Director for the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources from 1991 to 1994, and then as chief of staff for Jim Geringer, the Republican governor of Wyoming in 1995. Most recently, Wallace lobbied for GE Energy with the role of manager of U.S. government relations for 17 years, until 2012.
Michael Hindus, a retired partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP who has worked extensively with energy policy, has reservations about Wallace’s past career in lobbying. “I would be concerned,” he told GlacierHub. However, “he’s not representing GE anymore, and I just don’t know whether he sees himself still as representing the energy industry,” he said.
Daniel Zimmerle, a researcher at Colorado State University’s Energy Institute, agrees. He told GlacierHub that when it comes to ex-lobbyists in government roles, “it really comes down to whether they sever ties with those prior connections and in particular provide equal access to all viewpoints.”
In a statement to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Wallace said that at GE he “led a policy team that advocated for the deployment of clean energy technologies in the United States and around the world.”
But, Hindus said, the fact that we need to question Interior picks for their past energy interests indicates a larger issue at the Department. “This whole revolving door business is no good. We shouldn’t even have to have this discussion.” There is no question that various agencies under the Trump administration are flooded with ex-industry lobbyists.
He told GlacierHub, “in the ideal world, people from the Sierra Club or Friends of the Earth ought to be considered for these positions as well, though I’m not sure they ever have been.”
Wallace was endorsed by the National Parks Conservation Association, which wrote, “Recognizing how long this important Department of the Interior post has been vacant, we applaud Mr. Wallace’s nomination and we look forward to his timely confirmation.”
Snape echoed concern about the position’s long vacancy. He told GlacierHub, “Fish and Wildlife service hasn’t had a director since Donald Trump took office…so what’s really been happening is that David Berhnardt and Todd Willens have been essentially running that agency.”
Snape is not optimistic about the Department of the Interior because of Donald Trump and David Bernhardt, he told GlacierHub. However, he is hopeful about the upcoming presidential election. “I think 2020 is going to be the first climate change election,” he said.
In the meantime, the Center for Biological Diversity is resisting the Trump administration’s pro-oil agenda. “We have sued [the administration] 144 times and counting. We’re commenting on every rollback that they have. We have a grassroots army that has been going to public meetings, whether it be for wolves, whether it be for public lands, whether it be for off shore oil leases,” Snape said.
It may not be possible to know yet how Wallace will play his role at the Department of the Interior. One can only hope along with Snape that Robert Wallace will make decisions that protect the country’s natural lands and avoid causing additional harm to the glaciers.