Reminiscent of the scrutiny that led to the resignation of former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt and other Trump administration officials, Ryan Zinke, secretary of the Department of the Interior, has come under fire for a series of possible ethical violations.
Amid his championing of environmental rollbacks, the former Montana congressman has faced at least 18 known federal investigations, ranging from blocking the expansion of a casino by two Native American tribes in Connecticut following meetings with MGM Resorts, to bringing his wife along during travel in government vehicles.
But one inquiry may rise to the level of a criminal investigation, having been referred to the Department of Justice. A source not authorized to speak publicly on the matter suggested to The New York Times that the investigation in question likely has to do with Zinke’s involvement in a Montana land development deal backed by the chairman of energy giant Halliburton.
The deal involves a business and retail park that would be constructed near land owned by Zinke in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana. The microbrewery, hotel, and shops proposed to be built on the site would likely raise the value of Zinke’s nearby property. Land owned through his foundation could also be used to build a parking lot.
Even before these most recent developments, however, Zinke has been said to be on his way out of the Trump administration following next week’s midterm elections. While that may come as welcome news to many, critics fear his replacement, Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, will be even more effective at executing the president’s fossil fuel-friendly policies.
Indeed, while Zinke has made headlines with this ethical violations, Bernhardt continues to work quietly on provisions including weakening the Endangered Species Act to make it easier for oil and gas companies to access land that may otherwise be off limits.
Similar to Andrew Wheeler’s replacement of Scott Pruitt at the EPA, critics say Bernhardt’s previous experience with the Department of the Interior under George W. Bush, as well as his stint as an oil and gas lobbyist, make him well-poised to get things done.
“There are so many parallels with the Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler situation [at the EPA] and the Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt situation,” Aaron Weiss with the Center for Western Priorities told Politico. “Andrew Wheeler knows exactly how to pull the levers of policy. Dave Bernhardt is the exact same way. He is a walking conflict of interest.”
Also in the news:
• NASA announced on Tuesday that its exoplanet-discovering space telescope Kepler has run out of fuel and will be retired. Launched in 2009 to orbit the Sun, Kepler was used to look for planets outside of our Solar System. It observed 530,506 stars and found 2,662 confirmed exoplanets so far in a small area of the Milky Way Galaxy. The entire Milky Way could contain as many as 10 billion habitable planets based on this data, which is still being analyzed. Thirty years ago, astronomers could not say with certainty that other stars had planets, but Kepler showed that there are more planets than stars. “The search for planets is the search for life,” said Natalie Batalha of University of California, Santa Cruz, at a 2017 conference. “These results will form the basis for future searches for life.” Kepler’s replacement, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), was launched earlier this year. Kepler exceeded its predicted six-year lifespan, although it has been operating as a modified mission called K2 after its aiming system broke in 2013. After it is shut down, it will continue to trail behind Earth and orbit the Sun for the foreseeable future. (The New York Times, MIT Technology Review)
• Has humanity wiped out 60 percent of all the animals in the world, as was widely reported this week after the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released its latest Living Planet report? While the report’s findings are grim, that’s not the claim it was making. “It is not a census of all wildlife but reports how wildlife populations have changed in size,” the authors state. Furthermore, the report concludes that the relatively small number of animals sampled saw a 60 percent average decline across all species’ populations. Some populations grew: half of the animals are increasing in number, while half are decreasing. The WWF Living Planet report is an annual index that relies on prior estimates of different animal populations that have been monitored; it covers only 6.4 percent of the 63,000 species of vertebrates known to exist, and is weighted toward “charismatic” creatures like lions, elephants, whales, and tropical birds, while excluding invertebrates, which historically have attracted less interest and so do not currently have sufficient population data available. Despite these caveats, the report is yet more evidence of massive population declines and extinctions across thousands of species due to human activity. (The Atlantic)
• New research based on precise measurements from battery-powered floats that can drift deep below the water’s surface has found that climate change has caused the planet’s oceans to heat far more intensely than previously thought. The study, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, tends to counter a previous assumption that much of heat energy from a warming climate had been escaping out through the atmosphere. Instead it appears that the oceans have sequestered about 60 percent more heat than realized — leading the study’s authors to warn that the planet is deeper into the change than realized and problems related to rising sea levels may pose even greater threats than realized. (The Washington Post)
• The Trump administration’s proposal to roll back U.S. fuel economy standards turns out to be full of faulty calculations, putting implementation of the new rules in jeopardy. The proposal, named SAFE after the administration’s insistence that it will save lives by taking old cars off the road, backs up its claim with math that economists find baffling. The authors use a mathematical model that assumes that under the Trump proposal, after 2020, owners of older car models will drive less. But the proposal does not make driving more expensive, so there’s little reason to believe that the owner of a 2017 Prius, for example, will suddenly stop driving just because new cars aren’t getting more efficient. The proposal uses a second contradictory model that assumes that the Obama fuel standards, which make new cars more expensive, will lead people to buy more. The potential miles logged by these additional cars account for about half of the deaths that the new fuel standards claim to prevent. Other errors in the report include confusing an annual rate of change with a quarterly rate, and inflating what’s known as the “rebound effect,” the percent increase in driving habits as fuel efficiency increases, for no apparent reason. (The Atlantic)
• New experimental treatments are showing promise in the effort to stem the recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has claimed nearly 300 victims since July. At a medical conference this week, William Fischer II, an emergency care specialist at the University of North Carolina, reported that Ebola patients who took one or more of the four treatments had a 57 percent survival rate, nearly twice that of patients who were hospitalized before the drugs were approved for investigational use. For patients who began the experimental treatment early in the disease’s progression, the survival rate climbed to almost 70 percent. The new medications include an antiviral drug, cloned human antibodies, and a cocktail of human and mouse antibodies. Along with a new experimental vaccine and faster testing, the drugs could help public health officials avoid a repeat of the epidemic that claimed some 11,000 lives in West Africa five years ago. “I do think the tide is changing,” Fischer said, though he acknowledged that it was too early to draw firm conclusions about the treatments’ effectiveness. (The New York Times)
• And finally: Two centuries after Parkinson’s disease was discovered, its underlying causes remain one of medicine’s great mysteries. Now, a new study, published this week in the journal Science Translational Medicine, reveals a curious link between the elusive disease and, of all things, the appendix. Researchers analyzed data from nearly 1.7 million Swedes, some of whom were followed for decades, and found that those who’d had their appendix removed had about a 20 percent lower overall risk of developing Parkinson’s. While the reasoning is still not entirely clear, they suggest the culprit may be a protein called alpha-synuclein, which is found in the gut and which previous research suggests might travel along the main nerve that connects the gut to the brain. “There has to be some other mechanism or confluence of events that allows the appendix to affect Parkinson’s risk,” said senior author and neuroscientist Viviane Labrie. “That’s what we plan to look at next — which factor or factors tip the scale in favor of Parkinson’s.” (ScienceNews, The Guardian)