Interior nominee Zinke on climate change: 'I don't believe it's a hoax'

Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke portrayed himself as a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican” on Tuesday in his bid to become President-elect Donald Trump’s interior secretary — acknowledging the human role in climate change, and telling senators he would maintain the federal government’s role as a huge landowner while easing distrust among local communities and industry.

Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, tried to hew a middle ground in his confirmation hearing, pledging to maintain federal control of U.S. government-owned land — a priority for many Democrats — while addressing complaints about interior’s policies from Republicans such as by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“Teddy Roosevelt had the courage to look 100 years forward,” Zinke said, in one of many shout-outs to the conservationist Republican president. “I think we need to have the courage today to look 100 years forward and look back and say we did it right.”

Zinke also cited Sierra Club founder John Muir and early-1900s Forest Service chief Gifford Pinchot as role models for his approach to conservation. But he also called for an “all of the above” energy policy, a point of friction with green advocates who want the U.S. to switch away from fossil fuels.

Zinke had earlier won favor with Donald Trump Jr., the president-elect’s son and an avid trophy hunter, in part because he opposed some efforts by congressional Republicans to sell off large swaths of federal land. In one sign of bipartisan support, as he was introduced Tuesday by both of his state’s senators — Democrat Jon Tester, who does not sit on the committee, and Republican Steve Daines, who does.

These are key moments from the hearing:

Zinke: Climate change is no ‘hoax’

Breaking with one bit of Trump rhetoric, Zinke said he believes that climate change and that humans play a role. “I do not believe it’s a hoax,” he said in response to a question from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Trump has called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.

But Zinke stopped short of full-throated acceptance of climate science. He agreed that the climate was changing, and that humans have had an influence, but he said “there’s debate” over the extend of that influence.

When pressed on whether he’d allow fossil fuel development on public lands, Zinke aid, “we have to have an economy.”

Sanders cut in: “I’ll take that as a yes, there will be fossil development on public lands.”

Zinke finds a way to ding Russia

Zinke also separated himself a bit from Trump’s talk about warmer relations with Russia.

“If we want to check Russia, let’s do it with natural gas,” he said, alluding to Moscow’s leverage over the rest of Europe as a major gas supplier. Republicans in Congress have pressed for expanding U.S. natural gas exports as a way to weaken Vladimir Putin’s influence in the continent, especially after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea.

The topic came up as Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) pressed him on the limits the Interior Department is imposing on methane pollution from natural gas drilling. Zinke responded by waxing poetic on the lost opportunity created by the leaking of methane during the extraction process.

“We’re venting a lot, and we’re wasting energy, and that is troubling me,” Zinke said. “The amount of venting in North Dakota alone almost exceeds what we get out of the fields. Let us build a system that recaptures what is being wasted. And that’s an enormous opportunity geopolitically as well.”

Zinke defends vote to ease federal land sales

Despite his opposition to wholesale sell-offs of federal land, Zinke defended the vote he took early this month for a House rule that would make it easier to transfer government land to other parties.

He portrayed the rule as a sign of the anger and mistrust that constituents feel over federal land management.

“It was an indicator of how upset people are about our land policy at that moment, particularly if you are in Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana,” he said. But he added that the rule “has no weight unless it’s executed. I think it’s a shot across the bow that we have to do something.

“My No. 1 is trust,” he said. “I have to go out there and restore trust.”

The rule would eliminate the need to calculate the budget impact of a transfer of federal land, making it easier to pass such legislation. The vote has drawn criticism from green groups and concern from sportsmen’s groups that back Zinke for the post.

Calls on feds to ‘defer’ to states on managing monuments

Shooting down one idea that has taken hold among some Republicans, Zinke said he sees no legal way to rescind the protections that President Barack Obama has offered to vast amounts of Western lands under the Antiquities Act of 1906.

But he also left open the door to offering concessions to states whose leaders object to the federal government declaring national monuments within their borders.

“States that like their monuments, the state’s comfortable with monument, I would be an advocate,” Zinke said. “If the state is upset with a monument, and has a plan different from what we’ve done, I think we should defer a lot of that to the state.”

Obama has used the 1906 law to create 550 million acres of new monuments on existing public lands, enraging many Republican members of Congress who characterize the moves as a “land grab.” In December, he designated 1.35 million acres in southeastern Utah over the opposition of local government and state officials.

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has openly wondered whether a new president could rescind a predecessor’s monument declarations.

Zinke agreed with Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) that the act contains no provision allowing a president to rescind a national monument. But he also pushed hard for state input into management of a monument, seemingly opening the door to an alternative way to weaken monument status.

Review of coal-leasing prices may continue

Zinke backed efforts to ensure coal companies pay appropriate royalties and clean up the land they mine but stopped short of specifically backing Obama administration programs on those fronts.

The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, pressed him on the Obama administration’s ongoing review of its coal program. The review included a moratorium on new leases, and Interior this month released a roadmap for its review to determine whether to update its regulations and the royalty rates it charges miners.

“I think the review is good,” Zinke said when Cantwell asked if he would stop it. “I don’t know the specifics of that review but I think we should always look at our energy portfolio with an objectiveness.”

She also asked him: “You don’t have an objection to taxpayers getting a fair value…?”

“I think taxpayers should always get a fair value,” Zinke said.

Cantwell asked whether that includes coal.

Zinke: “Including our coal, wind and all the above.”

Zinke promises to do right by Alaska

Zinke committed to Murkowski that he would review every regulation that “takes lands and waters off Alaska” out of oil and gas development, responding to a litany of criticisms she offered at the outset of the hearing.

“Yes,” Zinke said. “We have to understand, we need an economy. If we don’t have an economy as a country, then the rest of it doesn’t matter. Alaska is different.”

Murkowski, a fierce critic of outgoing Secretary Sally Jewell, told Zinke that “to state that Alaska has had a difficult or a tenuous relationship with the outgoing administration is probably more than an understatement.”

“We’ve lost access to lands and to waters that even President [Jimmy] Carter had promised us would be open to us,” she said. “We’ve had our longstanding right to manage wildlife within our borders ripped away. We’ve seen projects halted through the delay or the denial of vital permits.”

Murkowski noted the Obama administration has blocked new offshore drilling in the Arctic’s Chukchi and Beaufort seas, converted coastal plains into de-facto wilderness as part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and rejected a land swap that would have allow the construction of a one-lane gravel emergency access road from an isolated fishing village through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

She called on Zinke to have the agency keep commitments made to Alaska, restore public access to public lands, help restore the full flow of oil through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and conduct “meaningful consultation” with native tribes. Alaska has only one-quarter of one percent of land in private ownership, “so the Interior must recognize the importance of land transfers and land exchanges.”

Democrats offer warm welcome

Top committee Democrat Maria Cantwell focused on areas where she and Zinke probably agree: the need to catch up on national parks’ maintenance backlog, the importance of those parks to the economy, and the need to preserve U.S. government ownership of federal land.

“My constituency want to know, will public lands face an unbelievable attack from those who want to take these lands from us,” the Washington state senator said.

She didn’t entirely leave Zinke off without challenge, however. Zinke has a strong record of backing coal extraction, while Cantwell called for coal miners to pay higher royalties for public lands. She also supported a requirement for coal mine operators to pay third parties to ensure funding for clean up of retired mines.


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