Trump Transition

What Interior nominee Zinke could mean for public lands, natural resources

As Congress votes to confirm President Trump's Cabinet picks, how will the new agency heads shape this administration's climate and energy agenda? E&ETV recently produced a series of discussions following the confirmation hearings of U.S. EPA administrator nominee Scott Pruitt, Department of Energy secretary nominee Rick Perry, secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, and Interior Department secretary nominee Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.).

E&E News reporters Brittany Patterson and Corbin Hiar join E&ETV Managing Editor Monica Trauzzi for a discussion on the confirmation hearing for Zinke, Trump's nominee to lead the Department of the Interior.

Transcript

Monica Trauzzi: Good afternoon and thanks for joining us from the E&E News newsroom in Washington, D.C. A quick confirmation hearing for Congressman Ryan Zinke to head up the Interior Department yesterday. I'm Monica Trauzzi, and with me are E&E News reporters Corbin Hiar and Brittany Patterson — thank you both for joining me. You were both in the room yesterday.

Brittany Patterson: Yeah.

Monica Trauzzi: Not a hearing filled with fireworks. There was even time for some joking about Smokey the Bear [laughs]. What do you consider the biggest news coming out of the hearing yesterday?

Corbin Hiar: Well, other than Congressman Zinke saying that he believes Smokey the Bear is real and Santa Claus is real, he also suggested, very strongly, that he is going to advocate for the Trump administration to undo at least one, potentially more, national monuments created by President Obama, without the approval of Congress. In his opening statement, he talked about the "right way" to protect public lands, which he repeatedly emphasized that he supports.

But I think the argument is that President Obama, especially with the Bears Ears Monument in Utah, went against the will of the governor, the entire congressional delegation, and many of the local elected officials. So, Congressman Zinke said that if confirmed, his first trip would be out to Utah to check it out, hear from folks, and then make a recommendation to the president-elect as to whether or not he should go forward with that, which is totally legally unprecedented and unclear.

Brittany Patterson: Pretty smooth sailing, but I would say the other place that we saw some fireworks or some contention would be over his beliefs on climate change, and how he would incorporate that into the policies of the Interior Department.

Monica Trauzzi: Does his stance on climate seem to be in line, from what we heard in the Tillerson hearing, and also from Donald Trump on the campaign trail?

Brittany Patterson: So, I would say it's fairly similar to Rex Tillerson's position. Congressman Zinke believes in climate change — he said it's indisputable, and also indisputable is man's role in climate change — but he broke with Donald Trump very succinctly. Bernie Sanders asked him directly, "Do you think climate change is a hoax?" and Congressman Zinke said, "No, I do not think it's a hoax." Where he does sort of waver and what might cause some consternation for Democrats or environmentalists is he questioned sort of the science and the ability of climate models to be able to make accurate predictions, and is sort of a little bit wavery on — to the extent that we can — but the science is settled.

Monica Trauzzi: He also says that he'll push for all-of-the-above. Ultimately, what will that mean for the future of regulations on oil and gas development?

Brittany Patterson: I think he was a little bit light on the policy specifics there, but he did repeatedly say he is an all-of-the-above energy guy and that he supported domestic energy production, which as Donald Trump said repeatedly on the campaign trail, will mean more oil and gas development. He also agreed that there was a war on coal and sort of touted coal as being part of the mix. Interestingly, though, he also said absolutely, he thought that wind and solar needed to be part of the mix, but I think what remains to be seen is what sort of policies will he put in place to make that a reality on public lands.

Monica Trauzzi: And Corbin, Zinke also talked about the importance of energy production to national security. He even said, "If you want to check Russia, let's do it with natural gas." What was the interplay like between the panel and Zinke on that?

Corbin Hiar: Well, that was definitely a surprise moment. I wonder if he's gotten in any trouble with his boss for that one. But basically, that was prompted by a question about using the Congressional Review Act to overturn the methane rule — BLM's rule — to limit the venting and flaring of gases produced along with oil. And Zinke somewhat uncharacteristically said that he would support an effort to undo the methane rule.

He was very cagey on a number of other topics about whether or not he would actually support what Congress lawmakers were trying to get him on the record about, but he then went on to say that he supported the general aims of the methane rule and said that it was a great opportunity to build more infrastructure to capture that gas, which could then be used to counter Russia, because Europe is very reliant on Russian gas. It was definitely a strange direction that he took that, from Congressional Review Act to Russia, but I think that to some extent is Zinke being a straight shooter and saying what he actually believes, which I think a lot of the Democrats on the panel seemed to really appreciate.

Monica Trauzzi: Some interesting comments on coal as well. What did he have to say about revitalizing the coal industry?

Brittany Patterson: Yeah. Well, he's asked from both sides of the aisle on this issue. Senator Cantwell asked him about the GAO report that was out yesterday that mentioned the amount of money that American taxpayers are wasting because of how we price coal and lease coal, and he —

Corbin Hiar: I just want to point out that was conveniently released by ranking member Cantwell moments before the hearing.

Brittany Patterson: Yes. Very true. But Congressman Zinke definitely — he said he was unfamiliar with the current three-year review that's happening of the federal coal program, which was interesting, but said he did support American taxpayers getting a fair return for their value. So, he was very — he left the door open to keep the federal coal review alive. Senator Barrasso from Wyoming pressed Zinke on whether he would end the three-year moratorium on coal leasing that happens — is happening during the review of the program — and he was also a bit cagey on that as well. So, I think left some doors open for potential changes to the federal coal program during his tenure.

Corbin Hiar: He also — his voting record in the House has been generally in support of the coal industry and opposed to increasing royalties and that sort of thing, so I thought it was especially interesting that he didn't out of hand say that the programmatic review should be ended, so that was some news as well.

Monica Trauzzi: Yeah. We also know that he's against the transfer or sale of public lands. Is that enough sort of cover to give Democrats to vote for him?

Corbin Hiar: Potentially, but I think that the broader point is he doesn't really need Democrats. I mean, he's already got Tester who testified in favor of him before the hearing. Tester said he had some issues with him but ultimately said he thought he'd make a good Interior secretary. Manchin is likely to support him as he is — I believe Tillerson and a number of other controversial — more controversial — Cabinet nominees. Pruitt — I think he's — they put out a press release with him supporting Pruitt.

So, between those two, you need one more Democrat to get to 60, and I didn't get the sense that any Republicans were concerned about his viewpoints. Cantwell could support him. King — Sen. Angus King — cut short his questions because he said that he was hearing what he liked and he would stop while he was ahead.

Brittany Patterson: And I think, interestingly, Zinke gave some interesting things that would make Democrats happy. For example, he repeatedly said he was a strong supporter of NEPA, which didn't necessarily have to be the case, so I think some things like that definitely sort of could throw a bone to Democrats who might be on the fence.

Corbin Hiar: Yeah, so I think that Democrats who are looking to constructively engage with him, perhaps ranking them Cantwell, might vote for him as a measure of goodwill, but he doesn't really need that many Democratic votes.

Monica Trauzzi: You guys had some interesting observations from the room. Tell me about Teddy Roosevelt.

Brittany Patterson: [Laughs] Yeah. So, we had a Teddy Roosevelt impersonator who was roaming the halls and then came into the hearing — about two hours in?

Corbin Hiar: And really had the look —

Brittany Patterson: Oh, definitely. Very respectful. He was hired by a public citizen to sort of just remind Zinke and the crowd that — Zinke, he has said — and he said during the hearing he's an "unabashed admirer" of Teddy Roosevelt and calls himself a "Teddy Roosevelt Republican." But our impersonator — very nice, posed for a picture with the congressman, took off his hat when Capitol Police asked.

Corbin Hiar: And notably did not interrupt the hearing, so — unlike at Tillerson's confirmation hearing or for Senator Sessions, there were no outbursts, even as Chairwoman Murkowski noted, his grandkids were completely silent —

Brittany Patterson: Right — very well-behaved [laughs].

Corbin Hiar: — for the duration of the four-hour hearing, so the hearing was remarkable, in a sense, for its lack of outbursts.

Monica Trauzzi: And what happened after the hearing?

Corbin Hiar: After the hearing, members of the press, as we typically do, sought to ask particular questions to the congressman about the hearing or questions that weren't asked. In particular, there's been a lot of reporting here in The Times and elsewhere — The Intercept — about Congressman Zinke's record as a Navy SEAL. He was found to have improperly billed some travel back to Montana, and that was not even discussed. It wasn't even brought up. It was almost like it didn't happen. And when members of the press attempted to talk to him, a Trump transition team member was like, "He won't be taking questions." Matt Daly from the AP, however, jumped in and asked him what he thought of the hearing, and he said that "it was cordial, professional and great to be here."

Monica Trauzzi: And there you have it, and that's what we'll end on. Thank you both. And thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]

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