Why would fossil-fuel interests win over ranching, farming and recreation interests? Because fossil fuels have more money, and more of it goes into politicians’ pockets.
There are regions where economic stress coexists with a beloved way of life. It can be hard to make a living in parts of the rural West, northern New England and the South. But people stay put in these places for reasons other than the almighty dollar. They include community, tradition and quality of life.
The prospect of losing a way of life is the source of anger in eastern Wyoming over the Trump administration’s opening of more public lands in the Powder River Basin to coal mining. It is also behind the continuing resistance in Nebraska to the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline.
But the issues go beyond the matter of souls vs. fossil fuels. They involve conflicts between one source of income and other sources. Both projects threaten the water supply in places where water is extremely valuable. That, in turn, threatens the farm and ranching economies on which these regions depend.
A clean environment is also essential for the recreation industry, a major employer in the rural West. Without clean water and air, hunters, anglers and hikers would have no reason to be there — nor would the outfitters whose businesses depend on them.
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Ranchers can’t ranch if the water supply is fouled. Mining operations throw dust in the air that chokes the animals. They also scrape away the grasslands on which cattle feed. The U.S. Forest Service puts pasture near the mines off-limits to ranchers. Small wonder ranchers are among the most potent opponents to expanded mining on public land.
The fight is about more than environmentalism vs. fossil fuels. It’s about money vs. money. And if that’s the case, why would fossil-fuel interests win over ranching, farming and recreation interests? The answer is that fossil fuels have more money and more of it goes into politicians’ pockets.
Trump’s secretary of the interior is Ryan Zinke. As a Republican rep from Montana, Zinke took campaign money from several major coal companies and the railroad that transports the coal. In June, he attended a meeting of Western governors, where he blew a lot of smoke about finding a balance between resource extraction on public lands and protecting them. Right before, he had a cozy one-on-one with a petroleum CEO.