Ryan Zinke, Donald Trump's pick for Secretary of the Interior, is planning to drill on public lands, set aside largely for outdoor recreation and conservation purposes.
During his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, the former Navy SEAL commander and sole representative from Montana in the House of Representatives, talked about both his strong support of public lands, and the drilling and mining he wants to do on them. He is widely seen to be Trump's vehicle to carry out an aggressive domestic fossil fuel strategy.
Throughout the hearing, Zinke tried to paint an image of a man who is a steward of public lands and the environment, despite his fossil fuel-friendly ideas. In response to a set of curt questions on the sale of public lands from Senator Bernie Sanders, Rep. Zinke said, "I am absolutely against the transfer or sale of public lands. I can't be more clear."
Montana and many other states' economies in the West, rely heavily on hunting, skiing, biking and other forms of outdoor recreation, so public access to federal lands where people can engage in these activities is gospel.
The Department of the Interior and other federal agencies own almost a third of the land and mineral estates out West. This gives Zinke plenty of leverage, and opportunities, to turn them into sources of revenue. Zinke argued that recreation and mining on public lands do not have to be in conflict and attempted to draw upon Teddy Roosevelt's view of a "multiple use" approach to federal lands.
Throughout the hearing, Zinke pressed his and Trump's assertion that the United States must become energy independent. Yet most of his energy concerns focused on fossil fuels, particularly coal. "The war on coal, I believe is real," he remarked, and strangely linked coal to clean energy, saying, "We should be leading the world on clean energy tech and I believe coal can be a part of that."
Despite Rep. Zinke's stated beliefs about keeping public lands public, his recent voting record coming into today's hearing seemed to contradict him. On January 3rd, he voted in favor of a House Republicans measure that would allow federal land transfers to be essentially cost-free and budget-neutral—practically greasing them up for oil drilling and development.
When the Democratic Senator of New Mexico Blank Heinrich confronted him on this vote, Zinke clarified that it was packaged into a vote on another rule and was not something he took very seriously. He reiterated that if it were not packaged in with another resolution and stood alone he "would not vote for it."
Although the decorated ex-Navy SEAL Commander has only just finished his first term in the House of Representatives, Zinke has already voted against conservation-minded resolutions 33 times—earning him a 3 percent score from the League of Conservation Voters, an organization that tracks environmental legislation in Congress. During this time he voted for big oil subsidies on public lands, against clean air and water related proposals, and against legislation cracking down domestic sales of imported ivory—the traffic of which is decimating elephant populations in Africa.
Like Rex Tillerson, Zinke also broke with President-elect Trump on the topic of climate change, saying it was real and at least partly caused by humans. But he hedged significantly on the importance of battling its impact. "The climate is changing and that's indisputable," he said. "Where there is debate is what that influence is and what can we do about it."
Over 97 percent of climate scientists, however, hold that human caused climate change is real and is causing rising temperatures, rising seas, increased storms and more.
While this may have given environmentalists a moment of relief, Zinke's perspective on energy did not. Whether intentional or not, Zinke even seemed to disregard the protection of federal lands entirely if it ran counter to energy independence.
"We need an economy. If we don't have an economy then the rest of it doesn't matter."
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