WASHINGTON — One year ago, seated between an American flag and a flickering fire, Ryan Zinke, the secretary of the Interior Department, announced the largest overhaul in the agency’s 168-year history. Zinke, who arrived for his first day of work riding a horse, said his plan would “transform” the Interior Department by reorganizing its many bureaus and potentially moving tens of thousands of Interior’s 70,000-person workforce to different locations around the country. Under his plan, Zinke vowed, working at Interior would be “the best job in the government.”
Yet other comments he’d made suggested a more Trumpian intent. Within months of his confirmation, he had told Congress that he wanted to slash Interior’s workforce by 4,000 people — 8 percent of full-time employees — through attrition, reassignments and buyouts. A few months later, he told a roomful of oil and gas industry executives that one-third of Interior’s staff was “not loyal to the flag” and pledged “huge” changes to how the agency functions.
Zinke’s reorganization, one of several proposals at the Trump-era Interior Department meant to benefit industry in the name of “energy dominance” — including weakening the Endangered Species Act and shrinking national monuments in Utah by two million acres — was hailed by the oil and gas industry, which said the plan would cut away red tape and speed up drilling and extraction. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, slammed the plan, saying it was “an exercise in weakening the Department of Interior by driving employees out. Once they’re gone, the extractive industries will be able to check off the top item on their wish list.”
Zinke resigned last month under the weight of numerous ethics investigations, but by all indications his “huge” reorganization lives on under the leadership of a high-ranking Interior official named Susan Combs. A Texas rancher, former state representative and two-term state comptroller, Combs is no one’s idea of an environmentalist. She fiercely opposed the federal government’s use of the Endangered Species Act during her time in Texas government, once referring to new endangered species listings as “incoming Scud missiles.”
However, Combs’ role as an unconfirmed appointee leading the overhaul of a Cabinet-level department and the nation’s main wildlife and public lands agency is problematic for more than ideological reasons. A joint investigation by Rolling Stone and Global Witness, an anti-corruption watchdog group, finds that Combs earned possibly as much as $2.1 million in recent years from oil companies who stand to benefit from the reorganization.
“It should be shocking that Susan Combs has pocketed up to $2.1 million from oil companies and is heading a shakeup of the Interior Department — a move that the same oil companies support,” says Jonathan Gant, an investigator with Global Witness. “But Combs is only the latest in a long line of conflicted Trump appointees, proving just how critical it is we immediately reform our conflict of interest laws.”
Trump nominated Combs in July 2017 to be Interior’s assistant secretary for policy, management and budget. The pick prompted an outcry from conservation and environmental groups. They noted that Combs, while serving from 2007 to 2015 as Texas state comptroller overseeing fiscal and tax policy, had pulled off an unusual coup by gaining control of endangered species policy from the state’s Parks and Wildlife Department and used her powers to fight federal efforts to add new species to its endangered list, such as the dunes sagebrush lizard, golden-cheeked warbler and lesser prairie chicken.
Embracing a conservative, anti-government stance, Combs had insisted that the feds were overzealous in their use of the Endangered Species Act and that adding more species to the list stunted the economy and limited energy production — a position firmly in line with the oil and gas industry. To ward off a federal endangered species listing for the dunes sagebrush lizard, she created a state conservation group run by oil and gas lobbyists to preserve the lizard’s habitat in the resource-rich Permian Basin. A former U.S. Fish and Wildlife director for Texas said the plan “stunk to high heaven.” (The state ditched it in 2018 after fewer energy companies signed on than expected.)
During her years in Texas politics, Combs received at least $970,000 in campaign funds from the oil and gas sector, according to the National Institute on Money in Politics. Even after leaving office, Combs used leftover campaign money to help pay for a petition to delist the golden-cheeked warbler under the Endangered Species Act, arguing that the iconic bird had recovered and no longer needed protection from the federal government.
Combs’ nomination to Interior has been stalled amid jockeying between Senate Republicans and the Trump administration over other appointees, but that didn’t stop then-Secretary Zinke from naming Combs “the master of the reorganization,” as he put it during a town hall in early 2018. Over the next year, Combs testified to Congress about the plan and traveled the country holding listening sessions with Interior employees in various states.
When Combs joined Interior, she filed a public financial disclosure report of her income and assets. That report reveals that she has earned a hefty amount of money from oil and gas companies that could reap a windfall from Interior’s reorganization. From 2016 to mid-2017, Combs indicated she earned between $271,006 and $2,167,500 in rent and royalty payments from leases issued to six oil and gas companies for mineral rights to her land in south Texas: Chesapeake Energy, Carrizo Oil and Gas, Murphy Oil Corp., ConocoPhillips, Marathon Oil and Phillips 66. (It’s customary for nominees to disclose their income in ranges.) Together, the royalty payments rank among the highest sources of income for Combs for the period covered in her disclosure form.
Five of the six oil companies that have paid Combs royalties are listed as members of lobbying groups that explicitly endorsed the Interior reorganization she’s in charge of, with executives from those companies also acting as directors or board members for the lobbying groups. In testimonials posted on Interior’s website, the president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, Big Oil’s biggest trade association, said the overhaul would streamline the permitting process “so that unnecessary barriers to oil and natural gas development are minimized and eliminated.” The American Exploration and Production Council’s president said his group was “very pleased” with the emphasis on “reduced administrative burdens, increased authority at local levels and improved coordination among federal, state and local agencies.” A lobbyist for the Independent Petroleum Association of America praised the overhaul for “taking steps to reduce administrative redundancy and remove organizational barriers” at Interior.
At a petroleum industry conference in North Dakota, Zinke himself said the reorganization would boost oil production on federal lands and help meet Trump’s goal of increasing American energy production. “If a project is good, then government needs to get out of the way and let industry go ahead and make the investment and rebuild America,” he said. “That’s the promise the president has said, and that’s the promise that we’re going to deliver.”
In a July 2017 letter to Interior’s ethics office, Combs disclosed that she received royalty payments from oil and gas companies and wrote that she would not “participate personally and substantially in any particular matter involving specific parties in which I know that any of these companies is a party or represents a party” unless authorized to do so ahead of time.
But it is unclear if Combs sought or received the go-ahead from Interior’s ethics office to work on the reorganization. She did not respond to Rolling Stone‘s multiple requests for comment. An Interior spokeswoman said she couldn’t comment on subjects unrelated to the partial government shutdown. Interior’s ethics office did not respond to an email asking whether Combs received the agency’s approval to take charge of the reorganization.
Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project, a Montana-based nonprofit watchdog for public lands, tells Rolling Stone that Combs’ leadership of the reorganization is yet another example of a Trump administration official with deep ties to private industry dictating federal policy for the country’s natural resources and protected lands.
“Susan Combs has advanced her career by undermining wildlife protections at the behest of special interests and industry. Now an unconfirmed political appointee is rejiggering America’s largest public land and wildlife agency with limited congressional oversight and without a thorough analysis of the implications,” Saeger says. “At the very least, Ms. Combs should resolve these questions about her apparent conflicts of interest in the light of day and spell out the steps Interior is taking to prevent them from influencing the reorganization.”