President Trump’s budget plan slashes Interior Department funding, boosts oil and gas drilling

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Bert and Christine DeLambert look down onto their cattle ranch along the long valley in Main Canyon in Uintah County Thursday Dec. 8, 2016. The DeLamberts' land is immediately below the PR Spring tar sands mine on the rim about three miles away. His springs have gone dry in the years since U.S. Oil Sands drilled exploratory holes and water wells. The DeLamberts unsuccessfully tried to block a water rights transfer to U.S. Oil Sands that would allow them to pump more groundwater.

Washington • President Donald Trump proposed budget would slash the Interior Department’s spending by 14 percent, speed up oil and gas exploration and reduce money for the government to buy up new land for preservation.

Trump’s $4.7 trillion budget plan, which Congress is unlikely to take up, would also move staff of the Interior’s headquarters in Washington out West, though it doesn’t detail where. Officials have mentioned Salt Lake City as a possible new home for the Bureau of Land Management.

Overall, the spending package is a Trump wish list: Tossing in $750 billion for new defense spending and $8.6 billion for a border wall but cutting social safety net programs like Medicaid and food stamps.

Trump’s move sets up a battle with Democrats, and even some Republicans, though the White House argued that the budget is the right answer to mounting debt.

“We need to continue to secure the country,” said Russell Vought, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget. “We need to continue to secure the border. We’re not going to be bashful about that. But at the same time, we’re also going to say that we have many, many programs that are wasteful and inefficient that we can no longer afford.”

The Interior Department, like many domestic agencies, faces steep cuts under the plan, which also mirrors GOP talking points, including money and authority to mitigate future wildfires and $293 million to tamp down a $12 billion maintenance backlog at America’s national parks.

It slashes $8 million from a fund meant to allow the government to buy up private land and preserve it as well as increasing the ability for oil and gas companies to get leases on federal acreage.

“The Department will also continue to make new areas available for renewable energy development — both onshore and offshore — and will prioritize renewable project permitting consistent with industry demand,” the budget says.

Democrats, who control the House, said the spending plan was dead on arrival.

“This budget is the Republican approach to governing in a nutshell: cut taxes for the super rich and then, when it’s time to fund national priorities, lecture us about tightening our belts,” said Arizona’s Rep. Raul Grijalva, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. “If you think environment conservation is an unaffordable luxury, you’ll love this plan. This isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, it’s dead on arrival in Congress, and printing it was a waste of time.”

Grijalva noted that the budget authorizes a reorganization of the Interior Department and $28 million to do so, though there's no detailed plan on what that means.

Conservation groups instantly denounced the budget plan.

“The administration’s budget undermines the very conservation values and traditions that the American people reaffirmed in the midterm elections,” said Jonathan Asher, a budget analyst at The Wilderness Society. “With deep cuts like those proposed to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and a 14 percent cut overall to the Interior Department, it’s clear the Trump administration is out of touch with the people and communities who treasure our public lands.”

Asher added that Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt “plans to continue the polluter-friendly agenda of this administration rather than listen to the American people.”

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, the top Republican on the House Natural Resource Committee, declined to comment on Monday, with aides saying he wanted to wait for the full budget to be unveiled.

Unlike in past years, the White House did not release a detailed, line-item budget but only talking points of what the administration is seeking, something known as a “skinny budget.” The Office of Management and Budget said more documents would be released next Monday.

Congress traditionally writes its own budget, though the president’s spending plan is seen as a roadmap of the White House’s priorities. The Trump plan was delayed, in part, because of the 35-day partial government shutdown in December and January. The current budget expires in September, and Trump’s demands for a border wall could set up another impasse.

Environmental groups said the one solace in the budget unveiling was that it likely would be tucked away and never seen again.

President Trump’s priorities remain dead-wrong — and they would be dangerous if enacted,” said John Bowman, acting managing director of federal affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Selling out our kids’ health and our public lands to corporate polluters is not what the American people want or need. Thankfully, this budget proposal is DOA.”