Investigative Journalist Steve Horn, of DeSmogBlog, discusses how a new hire at Interior Department, Todd Wynn, is right from the ranks of pro-fossil fuel, climate change denying, lobby group ALEC, which is funded by the oil billionaire Koch Brothers
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. US Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, is proposing the largest oil and gas lease sale ever in the United States. The March 2018 sale will offer 76.9 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico, off the shores of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. The very seas where the BP oil spill disaster took place. Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to solidify its connection to the fossil fuel interests, and to climate change deniers. The Real News documentary, “The Doubt Machine: Inside The Koch Brothers’ War on Climate Science,” and the second edition of that film, “Trump, The Koch Brothers, and Their War on Climate Science” found that climate change denial machine is well oiled, and is a multi-million dollar operation to prop up the fossil fuel industry. We are now experiencing the Koch brothers’ plans unfold before us, and now adding fuel to the fire, and excuse the pun, the former Head of Energy and Environment at the Koch brothers’ supported American Legislative Executive Council, or known as ALEC, Todd Wynn, has been hired by Trump’s interior department. Joining us now from Indiana is Steve Horn. He’s an investigative reporter for DeSmogBlog. Steve, good to have you with us. STEVE HORN: Good to be here. Thanks for having me. SHARMINI PERIES: Steve, let’s start off with how to make sense of all of this. I mean, it is unfolding before us. Is this the first direct hire from ALEC to the ranks of the Trump administration? STEVE HORN: Oh, man. I think so, actually, the first ALEC staffer to have gone from a high ranking position within ALEC to the Trump administration. There’s a lot of people who have more ancillary type ties to organizations who have relationships to ALEC. I think that at least from my memory, this is the very first person to go from … I mean, especially in this case, from an energy … What I cover is energy, environment. Someone who was involved in those issues at ALEC into the Trump administration, so I think the short answer is yes. SHARMINI PERIES: Tell us about Todd Wynn. What did he do at ALEC and what has his role been in the climate denial machine, or movement? STEVE HORN: So, Todd Wynn, when he was working for ALEC, he was the lead staff person from 2011 through 2013, which are key years and I’ll explain that in a second. But he was the Head of the Task Force on Energy, Environment, and Agriculture, or the EEA committee as it’s known in ALEC. Basically that committee does is what it sounds like. It deals with issues in those areas, and handles model legislation that is proposed. So, ALEC works, for those not familiar, basically ALEC is a corporate bill mill in which state level legislators and state level lobbyists get together at a few meetings per year and basically propose and sometimes pass model bills that are written by the lobbyists, that end up, once they become ALEC model bills, are then distributed to state houses nationwide. They can become, if they get the votes in the state houses, they can become legislation, so basically coming back to Todd Wynn, he was basically the liaison between all of those stakeholders in ALEC, those particular issues. It’s not his only rodeo in this area. Before he was at ALEC, he was involved in another organization as part of what’s called the State Policy Network, called the Cascade Policy Institute. That’s based out of (Portland, Oregon). The Cascade Policy Institute is a member of the State Policy Network, and SPN, I’ll just explain really quickly, is basically an offshoot of ALEC that was formed in the 1980s to be basically the think tank version, to give seemingly scholarly, legitimate stated the ideas that came out of ALEC so that these bills actually have some sort of seeming legitimacy behind them when they go into state houses. It’s been around for about 30 years. He was involved in the Cascade Policy Institute, dealing with these same sorts of issues there. He’s really cut of that cloth with State Policy Network, and with ALEC, and then he worked for Edison Electric Institute after that, which is the lobbying organization for the biggest electric utility companies or electricity companies in the country. He did that for the past, from 2013 to 2017, and now he’s with Trump administration. The last thing I’ll say, I said 2011 and 2013 are really important years for ALEC. That’s because at that time, that’s when actually all of these model bills were leaked through an organization I used to work for, Center for Media and Democracy, where 800 model bills were published the first time. Actually, before that ALEC never published their model bills, so citizens would have no idea ALEC was behind hundreds of bills that were passed in state houses, in the decades that came before that. Thereafter, after that project went public called, “ALEC Exposed,” ALEC actually started publishing its model bills online, and became a little more transparent about the fact that they’re behind all these bills, but before that there was really no way to track or trace ALEC unless you got lucky through an open records request or something like that. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, Steve, this is the first time we have concrete evidence, really, of the link between ALEC and of course the Trump administration, and the ranks of the Trump administration. So, what has Wynn been hired to do in the Interior Department? STEVE HORN: His new job is a great fit for what he’s done before this. He is the Head of External and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Interior. It’s not like a deputy position, so he doesn’t need to be approved by the senate, so it’s just a hire that Zinke made and maybe his deputies. Basically, he’s the one who is now the go between for industry stakeholders, may be environmental stakeholders, who knows how much of a voice they’ll have in these matters? But basically he’s the go between, setting up the meetings, and basically dealing with the meat and potatoes that go into policy making and regulation making at the Department of Interior. Of course, he’s met quite a few lobbyists over the years at his past jobs. Quite a few people in the corporate sector during his time at Edison Electric Institute, so in that way, if you’re looking at it from an industry perspective, he’s a perfect fit for a position like this. SHARMINI PERIES: Todd Wynn, it appears that he’s been working for the Interior Ministry for longer than it was announced. In fact, it was announced just recently as if he’s been appointed, whereas in fact according to your article, he’s been working for them much longer. STEVE HORN: I guess I’m not sure if it’s ever been announced, unless I missed it in the past several days, but the reason why I think it’s an interesting little vignette is that I didn’t find out about this from the Department of Interior. I found out about this because I’ve been covering ALEC since about 2011, and I actually met Todd Wynn through my reporting and contacting him as hopefully getting comment from him for stories. So, we were linked together on LinkedIn, and I got an update on LinkedIn, giving me the chance to congratulate him on his new job. That’s how I learned that, “Wow, Todd Wynn is now at the Department of Interior,” so that’s the full circle story of how I knew about this Todd Wynn story. I’m not really sure if the Department of Interior has put out a press release or anything like that yet. SHARMINI PERIES: Steve, in your opinion, is there a clear alignment between Koch brothers and ALEC, and the agenda now being played out in the Interior Department? STEVE HORN: Before Zinke came along, we documented it on DeSmog. There’s been a whole host of actors from the Koch world who are part of either the transition team or who have been named to the Department of Interior, or other agencies within the bureaucracy who are now at high levels and agencies. So, to answer your first question, yes, there are lots of Koch connections. This is, of course, the first direct ALEC one, but then in terms of where policy is going, I think that the biggest thing that the Department of Interior is working on right now, two things that are related. One is cutting down the size potentially of designated national monuments. There’s been a big controversy over the Bears Ears Monument in Utah. There’s other monuments that are now under consideration by Zinke and that’s been something he’s been reviewing basically from day one on the job. Then number two is, and this has been getting way less- SHARMINI PERIES: Explain a bit more. What about these monuments? STEVE HORN: So, these monuments are essentially you can’t do any drilling or extractive activities on these national monuments. They’re designated in such a way to be similar as national parks and federal land, but the one complicating factor is that it’s actually harder to undo something once it’s designated as a national monument, so this will be tied up in courts for quite a bit longer. Whereas federal lands or public lands, they’re owned by the federal government. They basically could still be drilling on those lands. There’s still a review process for it, so it has to be approved, but there is no drilling allowed on these national monuments, so that’s the big difference. That’s one of the big initiatives of Zinke so far is to do this big still ongoing review over whether or not to shrink the size of these monuments. Some actually thought that he might just get rid of some of them all together. It doesn’t really seem like he’ll do that, but he may downsize the ones that do exist, such as Bears Ears in Utah, and other places, especially in the West. Then, I think the other thing that Zinke’s been doing that’s been getting noticed far less than what I just discussed is there’s been quite a bit of drilling approved either by the Bureau of Land Management. Or, you know, by Bureau of Land Management. They’re the ones who do onshore approvals of drilling on public lands, but then offshore, of course as you highlighted at the top, there is now a push to do more drilling offshore, to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which is an agency, kind of a sub agency within the Department of Interior. That’s been getting noticed less than the national monuments reviews, but there’s been lots of leases that have taken place under Zinke, and I will say that’s mostly a continuation of what was happening under the Obama administration in a lot of ways. SHARMINI PERIES: Now, the Alaskan Arctic Refuge, which was being approved senate, for drilling as well. How does that fit into this agenda? STEVE HORN: Yeah, so in Alaska, it’s very similar. That is now designated a national monument, and the only way drilling could take place in that area is if that designation is undone, which seems at least increasingly more of a possibility than it ever has been before. Although, there’s been an industry push to undo that designation for years now, and one of the biggest proponents of that has been, especially in recent years, has been US Senator Lisa Murkowski, in Alaska, who in a lot of ways she’s being pointed to right now as this foil to President Donald Trump and people aligned with his agenda. She’s seen as a “moderate” but on oil and gas issues, she’s definitely in the “Drill, baby. Drill” camp. Especially in this area that we’re talking about now in the Alaska Arctic Refuge. SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Steve. One last question. We previously covered how oil drilling and auction system was altered to contain protests over expansion of more drilling in the Gulf. Explain that and remind us again what that was about, and can you expect some push back from activists and environmental groups, and communities about these new leases? Is there a fight back going on? STEVE HORN: Yeah, it’s an excellent question in terms of how did this happen, how has it been so easy to approve so much drilling onshore and offshore, on federal lands, or federal ocean area? Basically, the answer is that under Obama, there’s a new program that was created basically as a reaction to the Keep It In The Ground movement that popped up. That was led by quite a few environmental organizations in the US, including Greenpeace and others. Basically, what that did was at the time, these leases were mostly done at hotels or places where people could convene, at conference centers, and do the bidding. It got moved to a program called “Energy Net” which is a website, and since then, all of these leases have been taken place on Energy Net, into the Trump administration. It’s really been a continuity of what was happening under Obama. It’s unclear if environmental groups will continue to say these shouldn’t take place on land. That was one of the pushes that they were making under Obama. It’s been so chaotic since Trump has taken office that that movement fell by the wayside, the Keep It In The Ground movement. I would expect that it’ll probably pick up again as a movement, given this big lease that was announced in the Gulf of Mexico, and given that by March it will be well over a year since Trump basically won the presidency, and has been President. SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Steve. I thank you so much for joining us today, and keep up the good work. STEVE HORN: Thank you. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.