Interior’s Zinke touts White House line about ‘clean coal’, which doesn’t exist

The Trump official downplayed his scandals while pushing fossil fuels.

U.S. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke attends a 'Celebration of America' event on the south lawn of the White House June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke attends a 'Celebration of America' event on the south lawn of the White House June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images

A renewed push for so-called “clean coal” came on Wednesday by Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who during a radio interview said that those who care about the environment should support that energy source.

While appearing Wednesday morning on the local radio show Voices of Montana, a statewide daily radio talk show, Zinke, a Montana native, touted President Trump’s efforts to revive the dying coal industry.

“The most reliable fuels are nuclear and coal,” Zinke said, while emphasizing that “a lot of the coal market is overseas.” Positioning China as a leading U.S. rival on coal, Zinke argued, “it’s better to produce energy here under [reasonable] regulation” and “better to ship American clean coal” to other countries.

“[It’s] better if you’re an environmentalist to burn clean coal,” Zinke insisted during the interview, criticizing the cost of solar panels and related clean energy endeavors. “Wind chops up a lot of birds,” he argued several times, echoing a debunked talking point often used to oppose renewable energy.


Experts have repeatedly argued that clean coal doesn’t exist. Carbon capture and storage, the process through which emissions from coal power are buried underground, is a largely unproven and costly process, one that has never gained much traction commercially.

Last summer, the Trump administration’s own Department of Energy concluded that the coal industry’s recent decline has been the result of increased automation in mining and cheap natural gas, not a regulatory “war on coal.”

Opposing renewable energy in favor of fossil fuels, specifically coal, has been a pillar of the Trump administration, which has worked to roll back Obama-era climate regulations and initiatives.

As president, Trump has overturned the Stream Protection Rule, which required mining companies to monitor stream pollution levels and established buffer zones between streams and surface mines. The administration has also granted Oklahoma coal ash regulation powers and may soon do so for other states, weakening oversight of the toxic substance.


Earlier this month, Trump ordered the Energy Department to look into propping up failing coal plants. Under a new plan from the White House, grid operators would be forced to buy electricity from coal and nuclear plants at risk of closure in order to help keep them open.

These measures, among others, have worried activists, who say the administration’s prioritization of coal is coming at the expense of the environment and human lives.

All of this hasn’t stopped officials like Zinke from encouraging fossil fuels over renewable alternatives. The Interior Secretary claimed on a Fox News radio program in March 2017 that “there’s no such thing as clean energy” and that the administration’s pursuit of coal is doing no harm to the environment.

“If you want to look at how to protect the environment it is better to use cleaner grade coal, made in the U.S., than it is for China, which is building coal power plants as we speak,” Zinke said at the time. “They’re reducing their nuclear power capability and expanding their coal fired power plants  —  we need to make sure we provide them the cleanest coal and invest in our technology here at home.”

The official echoed those talking points again on Wednesday, once again indicating that the White House will continue its push for coal over options like wind and solar power, despite both having bolstered the U.S. economy.


Zinke’s interview with the Montana radio station only lightly touched on the many scandals the secretary is currently facing. Zinke is currently under fire over a number of financial and ethical decisions, including significant spending of taxpayer money on business and first-class travel. Revelations last week that Zinke is tied to a real estate deal backed by a Halliburton executive have heightened questions regarding his ties to industry insiders and potential misuse of public office.

In a separate incident, Zinke fired off a now-deleted tweet of socks sporting a Trump campaign slogan. Under the Hatch Act, Zinke is prohibited from conducting official business while donning such campaign-related apparel.

But the Trump administration official dismissed swirling questions about potential ethics violations during his radio appearance. Blaming “fake news” and arguing that “a team of attorneys” reviews his schedule, Zinke denied any wrongdoing in his meetings in addition to asserting he had not violated the Hatch Act.

Queried further, Zinke praised the Trump administration’s efforts more broadly on the economy and promised that a long-floated wall along the U.S.-Mexico is still in the works. Asked if his previous position as a Navy SEAL was harder or easier than his current position as Interior Secretary, Zinke also answered quickly.

“When people shot at you as a SEAL,” he said, “you could always shoot back.”