Interior pick walks fine line on climate, highlights conservation

Interior pick walks fine line on climate, highlights conservation
© Greg Nash

Rep. Ryan Zinke, President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFamily says Trump travel ban preventing mother from seeing dying son Saudi Arabia rejects Senate position on Khashoggi killing Five things to know about the Trump inauguration investigation MORE’s nominee to be the next secretary of Interior, used his confirmation hearing Tuesday to repeatedly highlight his record on conservation, while walking a fine line on the hot-button issue of climate change.

Montana’s sole congressman sought to compare himself to President Teddy Roosevelt and his strong conservation agenda, while saying he’ll ensure that fossil fuel production on federal land still have a place.

“Without question, our public lands are America’s treasure and are rich in diversity,” Zinke said.

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“If confirmed, I will work with each of you to ensure the use of our public lands reflects higher purpose, so that our children’s children can look back and say, ‘We did it right.’”

The GOP congressman repeatedly brought up his experience as a Navy SEAL, citing it as a key credential on issues as diverse from landscape planning to energy production.

“We need an economy and jobs too,” Zinke said when pressed on the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “And in my experience of probably seeing 63 different countries, I’ve seen what happens when you don’t have regulations.”

Zinke sought to contrast his positions against those of the GOP on key questions, specifically the transfer of federal land to state or private control.

“I want to be clear on this point: I am absolutely against transfer or sale of public land. I can’t be any more clear,” he said.

When pressed on a vote this month in favor of a House rules package to make it easier to transfer public land, Zinke downplayed the legislation, saying if the land provision were put up for a vote by itself, he would vote against it.

Zinke’s answers seemed to please the Republicans on the committee.

He committed repeatedly to working with senators on the issues they care about, including ending the moratorium on coal mining leases on federal land, supporting the repeal of the Bureau of Land Management’s methane venting and flaring rule, and asking Trump to undo national monument designations made by President Obama that do not have local support, although he was not confident that Trump could do that himself.

“Legally, it’s untested,” he said, adding that he’d prefer to work with states on national monument questions when possible.

Democrats tussled with Zinke on climate change, an issue that has cropped up in several confirmation hearings so far this month.

Under questioning from Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersCory Booker addresses speculation about his sexuality: 'I'm heterosexual' O’Rourke: Asking whether he is ready for White House is a ‘great question’ Former Trump aide: President has 'thick skin’ MORE (I-Vt.), Zinke insisted that he believes man-made climate change is “not a hoax,” notably breaking with Trump.

But, Zinke added, “I think where there’s debate is what that [human] influence is, what we can do about it.”

“I’m not a climate science expert, but I will become much more familiar with it and it will be based on objective science,” Zinke continued, noting the Interior Department’s oversight of the U.S. Geological Survey.

The answer wasn’t what some Democrats, including Sanders, wanted to hear.

"The scientific community is almost virtually unanimous that climate change is real and causing devastating problems,” he said. “There is a debate on this committee, but not within the scientific community."

Later, Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenCongress sends bill overhauling sexual harassment policy to Trump's desk Senate approves bill reforming Congress's sexual harassment policy Kamala Harris to keep seat on Judiciary Committee MORE (D-Minn.) asked Zinke whether he believed human activity is causing climate change effects such as rising sea levels.

“I’m not an expert on this field,” Zinke responded.

“That, to me, is a cop-out,” Franken shot back. “I’m not a doctor, but I have to make healthcare decisions.”

Zinke dismissed a growing environmentalist push to end development of fossil fuels in public areas, or “keep it in the ground.”

“We need an economy and jobs, too," he said. “I’m an all of the above. I will encourage, absolutely, wind and solar” but said federal officials have the right to undertake a review of the federal coal leasing program the Obama administration launched last year.

But he sidestepped a question about whether he would continue that study or listen to the conclusion Obama’s Interior Department reached last week, that royalty rates on federal coal mining should go up.

“I don’t know the specifics of that review, but I think we should always look at our energy portfolio with an objectiveness,” he said.

Beyond climate issues, Zinke clashed with Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) about sexual harassment and assault.

Duckworth, who served with Zinke on the House Armed Services Committee, accused him of not taking the issues seriously, citing his failure to condemn the video of Trump joking about assault and legislation he introduced – but did not support -- to register women for the draft.

“You wanted to send a gimmicky message that actually backfired on you, and that bill actually passed,” she said. “I just worry that you, with a history of being willing to participate in … this gimmicky bill, what you’re going to do when you lead federal employees at the National Park Service.”

Overall, Zinke’s answers didn’t garner the type of Democratic ire that’s expected when Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency nominee goes before Congress on Wednesday.

Scott Pruitt’s nomination to head the EPA — and, to a lesser extent, Rex Tillerson’s selection to be secretary of State — have raised more objections from climate activists than the choice of Zinke.

Democrats even joked with their House colleague during his hearing, with both Franken and Sen. Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichManchin’s likely senior role on key energy panel rankles progressives Senate panel advances Trump’s energy nominee despite Dem objections Dems wonder if Sherrod Brown could be their magic man MORE (D-N.M.) hassling him about the existence of anti-firefighting mascot Smokey the Bear.

“He’s real to me, sir,” Zinke told Franken, adding later, “My grandchildren are behind me, and I also believe in Santa Claus.”

 “OK, that might be disqualifying,” Franken replied with a smile.