WASHINGTON - President-elect Donald Trump's pick to run the Department of the Interior, Representative Ryan Zinke of Montana, said during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday that he would review President Barack Obama's moves to limit oil and gas drilling in Alaska and some other parts of the country if confirmed.
“Yes,” he said in response to a question from Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska about whether he would review drilling limits on federal land in her state as head of the department.
“The president-elect has said that we want to be energy independent. I can guarantee you it is better to produce energy domestically under reasonable regulation than overseas with no regulation," he said.
“We need an economy,” he added.
A surprise pick
The Interior Department oversees territories covering a fifth of the United States' surface from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico. This comprises sensitive wildlife habitats, iconic landscapes, rich deposits of oil, gas and coal and important pasture lands for ranchers.
The former Navy SEAL commander, an avid hunter and angler, emerged as a surprise pick to head the department, in part because he has embraced federal stewardship of national parks, forests and refuges. This diverges from the Republican Party's official position to sell off acreage to states that might prioritize drilling, mining, ranching and forestry.
But he has also fought for increased energy development on federal lands, a position that has worried conservationists but which fits neatly with Trump's vows to bolster the U.S. energy sector by scaling back regulation and opening up more publicly held land to development.
Offshore drilling off-limits
Over the last eight years, the Interior Department has sought to limit industry access to federal lands and played a key role in Obama's agenda to combat climate change, as it proposed rules aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions from energy production on federal land.
Obama's Interior Department banned new coal mining leases on federal property early in 2016. More recently the agency placed parts of the offshore Arctic and Atlantic off-limits to drilling and declared national monuments that protect large parts of Utah and Nevada from development.
Zinke said he believed Trump could “amend” Obama's moves to declare millions of acres as national monuments.
Zinke was the first of three Cabinet heads Trump has chosen to oversee his environment and energy portfolio to face Senate scrutiny this week.
Trump's pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, was to testify on Wednesday, and Trump's choice for Energy secretary, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, was to testify on Thursday.
Climate debate not settled
Zinke also said during his hearing that he believes that humans contribute to global climate change but that there is still debate over what should be done about it.
“I do not think it is a hoax,” he said.
Before running for the White House, Trump called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to weaken U.S. businesses, a position he has since defended.
In his opening remarks, Zinke struck a moderate tone, saying that he recognizes that some federal lands require strong protection. He also called himself an “unapologetic admirer of Teddy Roosevelt,” a former Republican president who pioneered public land conservation.
He said, however, that “a preponderance” of U.S. federal lands are better suited for “multiple use using best practices, sustainable policies and objective science” — a nod to U.S. industries that depend on access to public acreage.
As a first-term congressman, Zinke pushed to end the coal-lease moratorium, saying it had resulted in closed mines and job cuts, and he introduced a bill expanding tax credits for coal-burning power plants that bury carbon dioxide emissions underground.