Editor’s note 12/13/2016: President-elect Trump just picked Ryan Zinke to lead the US Department of Interior. It’s hard to imagine a choice more deeply embedded with coal industry interests or hostile to the treaty rights of Northwest tribes. To help shine a light on his record, Sightline is re-posting an examination of Zinke that we originally published on April 6, 2016.
Republican Ryan Zinke, Montana’s sole Representative in the US House, lauds Northwest coal export terminal plans and antagonizes their opponents. He wants the coal ports built posthaste and doesn’t much care about the vocal and broad-based objections to them—especially the supersized Gateway Pacific coal terminal proposed near Bellingham, Washington. But considering the large sums of money Zinke accepts from companies that would directly benefit from building those terminals, his attitude and actions are not surprising. They look very much like another case of pay-to-play politics advancing corporate agendas above public interest.
Tens of thousands in campaign cash from coal and rail interests
Campaign contribution records reveal that some of Zinke’s biggest political donors would directly benefit from the coal export project. So far in the 2016 election cycle, his second largest funder, with $11,700 in donations, is Berkshire Hathaway, the investment firm that owns BNSF Railway, which would haul the coal to the port. (BNSF is one of the most important earnings divisions for Berkshire.) What’s more, over the course his political career, Zinke has also taken an additional $17,700 directly from BNSF Railway.
Zinke’s fifth biggest funder this cycle, with $10,500 in gifts, is Cloud Peak Energy, the financially ailing western coal mining company that owns 49 percent of the Cherry Point coal export terminal project. The firm is so desperate to advance the project that it has agreed to pay up to $30 million toward the project’s permitting costs. Zinke has also taken $4,000 from now-bankrupt Arch Coal, the minority stakeholder in a proposed coal export terminal at Longview, Washington.
Influential House Committee appointments
Not only has Rep. Zinke pushed for speedy construction of coal terminals, but he has also worked to protect the industry’s profits. In 2015, for example, he defended a loophole for coal companies that allows them to avoid royalty payments assessed on export coal by first selling it to a domestic subsidiary. Sightline’s leading analysis of taxpayer losses from coal companies avoiding royalty payments shows that Cloud Peak is among the biggest beneficiaries of the loophole.
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Zinke also sits, quite usefully, on two key committees in the US House of Representatives: the Armed Services Committee, which oversees the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Natural Resources Committee, which sets coal mining policy. These positions have enabled him to exert special influence on behalf of the would-be Northwest coal export industry.
Disregard for Lummi Nation treaty rights
In the case of Cherry Point, it remains to be seen whether Rep. Zinke’s political power will be enough. Last month, he publicly lashed out at the Army Corps of Engineers, calling for a federal investigation of Colonel John Buck, the district commander overseeing the environmental review process for the proposed Gateway Pacific coal terminal. Zinke was apparently incensed by rumors that the Corps was preparing to halt its review process in response to claims by the Lummi Nation that the project would violate the tribe’s constitutionally protected treaty rights.
But on April 1, the Gateway Pacific backers themselves asked to suspend work on the project’s environmental review process, apparently fearing that the Army Corps would indeed honor the Lummi’s claims and put a stop to the project. Zinke may not recognize that the prospects are dimming for coal exports, but it seems his big financial backers—coal and rail companies—can already see the writing on the wall. And, surely worrying to the first-term Congressman, once-reliable donors to his campaign coffers may soon cough up little more than coal dust.