Columns

Interior Secretary Describes Self as 'Supporting Commander' of Border Wall

Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee on Jan. 17, 2017. (Rex Features via AP Images)

WASHINGTON – Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said constructing a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is “complex in some areas” but that “a nation without a border cannot exist.”

On a conference call today, Zinke described his role in the wall project as a “supporting commander” who helps Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. He said Kelly would ultimately decide if some sort of electronic surveillance is more appropriate than a wall at certain locations along the border.

Zinke reportedly told the Public Lands Council on Tuesday “we’re not going to put the border wall on our side and cede the river to Mexico.” He was asked today to clarify his position on the construction of wall.

“The president has directed that we built a wall. The president has directed that Secretary Kelly, who I know well and think is a magnificent choice for the job, take the lead. I am a supporting commander in that role,” he replied. “My job is to help Secretary Kelly, for instance, with consultations, with the tribes that are along the border. We have a national park along the border, which has an enormous wall, a natural wall there. The Rio Grande, looking at it, I pointed out some of the challenges on it yesterday about how the border is actually in the middle of the river, so what side do you put the wall? Or, if a wall electronic measure is more appropriate in places? Those are the decisions General Kelly is looking at.”

“My role is to support. I think a wall is complex in some areas, but I think at the end of the day what’s really important is the security – to make sure we have a border. And I’ve said it for long: without a border a nation cannot exist. And the president has tasked Kelly, and I’ve talked to the general several times to make sure he knows we’re in a supporting position to the general,” he added.

Senate Democrats are trying to prevent federal funds from being allocated to pay for a wall at the southern border.

“Instead of spending taxpayer money to pay for a pointless wall, we should be investing in creating jobs,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday at a National Council of La Raza event.

On the conference call, Zinke discussed his support for President Trump’s executive action on energy that ended the Obama administration’s moratorium on federal coal leases. Zinke said the move would help smaller communities in particular.

“Well, it’s certainly a signal that the war on coal is over and punitive regulation that was directed specifically against coal, we are looking at that. The president has made it clear that, you know, such regulatory policies that had been targeted to coal – those are over,” Zinke said.

“My executive order did direct the BLM to process coal applications and to expeditiously do it, keeping with the process that has been in place prior to the moratorium – and that was [Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement] – and making sure that process is fair,” he added.

Zinke called Trump’s executive order “a sign of relief that actually smaller communities now have a voice and that voice is being heard.”

The secretary was asked if he anticipates more leases coming in now that the moratorium has been lifted.

“There been not a rush in the last few years for coal leases. Some of it has been market, some of it has been an uncertain regulatory environment, some of it is because the coal industry itself has been under enormous pressure –  you know, there’s a few hundred coal companies that have gone bankrupt and some of the larger ones have been to Chapter 11 and coming out of bankruptcy,” Zinke said.

“You know, we’ll see, but it’s going to be market-driven. We don’t favor one energy source over another. We just want things to be fair up front and market-driven, understanding that the goal is to be energy-independent, not to be dependent on foreign sources of energy and have the ability to export with added infrastructure to do so,” he added.

Zinke said his department would be “prepared” to process additional leases.

“We’ll see where the market goes,” he said. “We’ll be prepared to process them as we open the areas for lease, and we’ll see.”