Rep. Rob Bishop, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, says he's thrilled to finally be working with a president who supports the idea of returning the control of federal land to states and localities.
But in an interview with the Washington Examiner, he said Congress needs to work quickly to make sure President Trump's decisions to roll back national monument designations are locked into place, so a future president can't reverse those moves.
"What they are doing has go to be put into some type of statutory language to actually give some finality to it," Bishop said. "Otherwise, everything Trump is doing now can be changed by the next president."
Bishop said the issue is a challenge, however, because he argues that environmentalists and other opponents are misrepresenting the intent of the monument reforms, and the broader Trump public lands agenda.
"We can only overcome it with the truth," Bishop said of opposition to Trump's recent move to shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments in his home state of Utah. "The reality is this was never about conservation versus development. Interest groups who claim to be environmentalists are always making pictures of oil rigs and oil wells drilling on these areas."
"That is a false narrative and it’s a fake issue," he added. "We are taking that narrative off the table and we are simply saying it’s a lie."
Excerpts of his interview follow:
Washington Examiner: The public doesn’t seem to be with you on the monuments rollback. Why are people wrong and how do you bring people to your side?
Bishop: We can only overcome it with the truth. The reality is this was never about conservation versus development. Interest groups who claim to be environmentalists are always making pictures of oil rigs and oil wells drilling on these areas. That is a false narrative and it’s a fake issue. We are taking that narrative off the table and we are simply saying it’s a lie.
It's what the locals want. Trump has given them a win by finally listening to the people who live in that area and giving their voice a chance to be heard.
We want to make sure we codify what the president did to ensure the local people and especially the local Native American tribes get to have real management. And we actually do protect it. Just making something a monument doesn't neccessarily mean it will be protected more than it already was.
Washington Examiner: What you are you doing to ensure there is no energy development in the area previously covered by Bears Ears?
Bishop: There is no oil and gas in the area to drill. In that Bears Ears area, there is no development possibilities that are down there. Within the monument itself there, the resources that are there are simply not viable at today’s market prices. In fact, the only kind of economic development that is viable is grazing.
So one of the reasons we are extending the mineral extraction moratorium that was originally part of the presidential proclamation and putting into the statute is to illustrate the point this is not about industry development. It's not about oil or gas or drilling or mining or anything like that.
It’s about how you actually control the lands. Who gets to have a say in the management of the lands and how you actually protect the lands, all of which were done very poorly in the president’s [Obama’s] proclamation and which were solved by legislation.
Washington Examiner: A Uranium company, Energy Fuels Resources (USA) Inc., lobbied for the Bears Ears rollback, saying it would give easier access to the area’s uranium deposits and help it operate a nearby processing mill. What do you know about that company’s role in the Trump administration's decision-making process?
Bishop: There are a lot of people out there trying to throw out any argument to see if it sticks on the wall. This is just one of those elements.
There is uranium mining development out there. It was outside the Bears Ears proclamation area. There is a mill that’s out there. It was outside the Bears Ears proclamation area. The only impact the Bears Ears proclamation had was it would impact one of the roads that go into the mine. One of those roads actually went through the original Bears Ears and they were concerned about whether there would be some type of effort to prohibit them from actually accessing their property.
But as far as additional mining. No. It's already taken care of. That argument is another false narrative made to try and confuse the issue.
Washington Examiner: What are the prospects for broader Antiquities Act reform next year?
Bishop: We are looking to do everything. The two bills we proposed to enshrine the changes to Grand Staircase and Bears Ears come first.
We have done a hearing on Grand Staircase already, and we will have a hearing on Bears Ears as soon as we come back in that second week of January.
We need to move forward with those so we can codify what the president did and not leave it up to the variances of either judicial misinterpretation or some other executive coming in there and changing it again.
What the people in those areas want is just some kind of finality so they know how the land will be managed, how they can use the land. What industry does want is the finality so they can know where they can actually do the exploration and where they can’t. So all of that is important and that's why we're supposed to do it.
Washington Examiner: Outside the national monuments issue, where are the opportunities for energy development on public lands in 2018?
Bishop: We are just starting the process, and once again you have an administration for the first time that wants to listen to local people which is what we have been complaining and saying what has to happen.
But what they are doing has go to be put into some type of statutory language to actually give some finality to it. Otherwise, everything Trump is doing now can be changed by the next president.
The premise has to be there can be economic development, but it can’t take away from environmental concerns or preservation. That's why the entire PR campaign against what the president and we are trying to do in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase is so galling because they are trying to say you can either have preservation or you can have development, you can’t have both. That once again is another false narrative. It’s a lie.
Washington Examiner: How big a priority is Endangered Species Act rollback? Do you see that effort imperiled by President Trump’s soft spot for animals, as shown by his recent decision on elephant trophy imports?
Bishop: The Endangered Species Act is a harder one to deal with because it involves litigation and the courts. The problem with the Endangered Species Act is it has once again been morphed and abused by some people, and the very premise is illogical. The premise of the Endangered Species Act is to list a species until it can improve, but the listing itself does not improve it.
What the Endangered Species Act has to do if it’s going to be effective is set benchmarks for what it means when you know the species is being recovered, and how you get there.
And having states being involved in that process is the best way of accomplishing that. That is something that Trump and Zinke have said and recognized. That is the change that needs to take place.
Washington Examiner: Can the Endangered Species Act reforms and changes the Trump administration is seeking on sage grouse protections present energy opportunities?
Bishop: Yeah, because some of the areas that are put aside with the sage grouse and Endangered Species Act was specifically to prevent economic development. Not necessarily to recover the species. The states that have sage grouse all had plans on their own. If we let those states actually do those programs as opposed to the federal government, you can solve that problem.
Washington Examiner: What are the prospects for a comprehensive energy bill agreement with the Senate? How do you overcome hurdles that killed it before?
Bishop: Our committee has already passed an energy bill both onshore and offshore. We want that passed and think it will be passed soon in the House so that we can start negotiations and conversations in the Senate about reconciling the two versions.
There needs to be some kind of comprehensive energy approach. I am very proud of the version we have. It indicates a couple of things that are important. One is that active development is not bad, the other is you need to involve the states more to make sure it actually is effective and efficient. And that is the goal of ours.
Washington Examiner: What is your vision for Puerto Rico’s next generation power grid, and what kind of role can Congress have with rebuilding it?
Bishop: To rebuild the power grid, you need to get the Puerto Rico government, specifically the governor and the PROMESA [financial oversight] board established by Congress to try and solve their economic problems to work together instead of suing one another.
That is what we will be pushing forward in Puerto Rico to make sure they are actually working together. The hurricane damage that took place in Puerto Rico as well as the Virgin Islands is truly catastrophic and is devastating and needs to be fixed.
All of these can be worked together to make sure there is a better life for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands with reconstruction money we send down there, but also in the long-term getting the government of Puerto Rico and the PROMESA board to work hand-in-hand. To go arm-in-arm instead of arm wrestling all the way.
Washington Examiner: Is it possible to rebuild with Puerto Rico’s power authority, PREPA, currently constituted as a bankrupt, state-run monopoly?
Bishop: It is not necessarily about privatization. PREPA came into an entity that has been used for political purposes. That is why you have to take it out of that form. That is why having the board and governor work together to have new leadership and new rules and regulations for how PREPA will be constituted. They have to do that. They can do that. And it needs to be done.
Washington Examiner: What is a realistic timeline for Puerto Rico’s grid to be restored?
Bishop: The governor’s original timeline was two weeks ago. I don't know to be honest with you. It can be done. It needs to be done. I have heard some private sources that think it can be done much faster than some of the original estimates were. Most of the people were originally saying four to eight months to be totally up. I think we can probably do it faster than that. To do that I need the governor’s office and the board to work together.
Washington Examiner: What has it been like for you to see your agenda fulfilled, with a like-minded administration? You’ve been stymied much of your career from accomplishing your goals.
Bishop: It is invigorating to realize that agencies can actually work with Congress if they want to. And I am sorry, in the last administration, the agencies specifically tried to slow walk everything we were doing or simply work around us and ignore Congress and do things on their own initiative.
What this administration is doing is actually working with us. We all of a sudden ask for information and we get it. We ask for ideas, and they will talk to us. And once again having an agency that realizes that decisions should not be made here in Washington, but you can make better decisions if you actually try to get the different groups and agencies to work together, and give greater emphasis to the issues on the ground.
The further away you get from the ground, the worse the decision are, the more dogmatic the decisions are, the more prescriptive the decisions are. And when you get back to Washington, they don't have a clue. That is something this administration realizes, that you need to get people back involved on the ground. And the Department of Interior needs to have a better image on the ground.
Washington Examiner: Do you see [Interior Secretary Ryan] Zinke as an ally in that? You disagreed over federal land issues when he was in the House.
Bishop: Zinke is doing that. That’s his goal. That is his reorganization model. To get more decisions being made on the ground. To get people that actually like to work with the administration. People no longer need to be afraid of the Department of Interior. That is something this administration sees and that is one of their goals. And that is so refreshing.