Trump Interior pick to clarify stance on federal land development

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By Valerie Volcovici

<span class="articleLocation”>A U.S. Senate committee will grill
President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to run the Department of the
Interior, Representative Ryan Zinke of Montana, during a
confirmation hearing on Tuesday that was likely to focus on how
he would balance development and conservation on America’s vast
public lands.

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 – rejecting the Republican Party’s official
position to sell off acreage to states that might prioritize
drilling, mining and cattle grazing in some areas.

While an advocate for federal control, Zinke has also fought
for increased coal mining on federal lands, a position that has
worried conservationists but 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.

In prepared remarks seen by Reuters before the hearing,
Zinke struck a moderate tone, saying that he recognizes that
some federal lands require strong protection while others are
better suited for “multiple use using best practices,
sustainable policies and objective science.” He also called
himself an “unapologetic admirer of Teddy Roosevelt,” a former
Republican president who pioneered public land conservation.

The Interior Department oversees territories covering a
fifth of the United States’ surface from the Arctic to the Gulf
of Mexico, comprising sensitive wildlife habitats, iconic
landscapes, and overlying rich deposits of oil, gas and coal and
important pasturelands for ranchers.

Over the last eight years, the Interior Department has
sought to limit industry access to federal lands and played a
key role in Democratic President Barack 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, and more recently 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.

As a first-term congressman, Zinke pushed to end the coal
moratorium, saying it had resulted in closed mines and job cuts,
and introduced a bill expanding tax credits for coal-burning
power plants that bury carbon dioxide emissions underground. He
has also supported the Crow Indians in his state, who want to
mine and export coal through terminals in the Pacific Northwest.

Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state, the top Democrat
on the Senate energy and natural resources committee holding the
hearing, was likely to press Zinke on whether he would adopt
recommendations by the current Interior Department to reform
federal coal leasing to ensure companies pay higher royalties
and account for its impact on climate change.

Lawmakers were also expected to seek clarity on Zinke’s
commitment to keeping public lands in federal control, after he
voted with fellow Republicans on the first day of the new
session of Congress on a provision tucked into a broader rules
package that could make it easier to transfer federal lands to

Zinke’s hearing will be 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 Thursday.

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