Rep. Ryan Zinke, Republican from Montana and President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Department of the Interior, will appear before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee for a confirmation hearing today.
If confirmed, Zinke, a former Navy SEAL turned politician, will head a federal agency whose actions will have major implications for the environment — and specifically for climate change.
Although its most visible public role is maintaining America’s national parks, the Interior Department also oversees 500 million acres of public lands — a fifth of the land in America — plus over 700 million acres of subsurface mineral rights, roughly a third of the nation’s coastline, and nearly 2 billion acres of land under the ocean. The agency’s actions directly affect the drinking water quality of more than 30 million Americans (roughly one out of every ten).
Rep. Zinke describes himself as a conservationist and a supporter of hunting, fishing, and the extraction of natural resources. In a statement released by the Trump transition team, Rep. Zinke wrote “As inscribed in the stone archway of Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Montana, I shall faithfully uphold Teddy Roosevelt’s belief that our treasured public lands are ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.’”
The National Parks Action Fund gave Rep. Zinke an “F” for his voting record on bills that would impact national parks.
The agency writes many rules governing oil and gas drilling and coal mining on public lands, including curbs on leaks of the powerful greenhouse gas methane announced in November and measures designed to protect streams from coal mining waste.
Rep. Zinke, a member of the Coal Caucus in Congress with a lifetime score of just 3 percent from the League of Conservation Voters, spoke out against both of those rules, calling the methane rule “duplicitive and unnecessary,” and calling it “imperative” to repeal the stream protections.
It’s his stance on climate change that has environmentalists most concerned, however. The scientific evidence confirming global warming and the role that greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels has continually grown over the years — but Rep. Zinke has moved in the opposite direction.
Early in his political career, he wrote that “climate change threat presents significant national security challenges for the United States — challenges that should be addressed today, because they will almost certainly get worse if we delay,” in a 2010 letter calling on the Obama administration to take immediate action supporting the development of renewable energy to avoid “catastrophic costs” associated with a changing climate.
Just four years later, when he was running for federal office, he denied climate change was a threat in a debate, saying “It’s not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either.”
Since 2013, Rep. Zinke has taken over $345,000 in campaign contributions from companies that drill for oil and gas on public lands, putting those companies in the top three groups that have donated to Rep. Zinke’s political career. “This is a bright red flag for Zinke,” Randi Spivak of the Center for Biological Diversity told E&E News. “Fossil fuel and coal interests loom large.”
At the nomination hearing today — which DeSmog will be covering live — Rep. Zinke is expected to face questioning about climate change, whether to sell off public lands or cede control to states (measures he has a strong record of opposing), and protections for endangered species as well as relations to Native American tribes.
Environmental groups called attention to Rep. Zinke’s record of supporting pro-fossil fuel measures, including his ardent support for the Keystone XL pipeline. “In his short tenure in Congress, Congressman Zinke has voted to sharply curtail the President’s authority to create National Monuments and against common-sense fracking regulations to protect our public lands,” Earthworks said in a statement. “He has co-sponsored legislation to allow for natural gas pipelines to be routed under National Parks and Wildlife Refuges. And, he was co-sponsor of controversial legislation (H.R. 1937) that would severely limit public review of mining projects on public lands.”
Rep. Zinke has supported some measures to protect the environment, opposing two proposals to mine on federal lands next to Montana’s Yellowstone National Park. His opposition to transferring federal lands to state control is also widely seen as positive for the environment.
Zinke’s supporters in Congress have cited Rep. Zinke’s interest in hunting and fishing to defend his environmental record. “He understands and respects that we have national parks and lands that are open to the public that need to be protected and preserved,” Sen. John Hoeven, Republican from North Dakota, told E&E News. “But at the same time he also understands the importance of agriculture and mining and energy development.”
Update: At his confirmation hearing, Zinke told U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (U-VT), who asked Zinke if he believed climate change is a “hoax,” that he believed it was not.
But later, Zinke also said climate change models could be off and said he is “not a climate scientist expert.” U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) called his answer a “cop out.”
“I’m not a doctor, but I have to make health care decisions,” Franken said in response to Zinke.
Zinke also said he does not support the transfer of U.S. public lands to states, though he does believe in a balacing of interests and amicable stakeholder relations between localities, states and the federal government.
The Washington Post has put together a video which lays out the hearing’s highlights. The whole hearing is now up on C-SPAN.org.
Main image: By United States Congress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.