- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Pushed by Democrats on whether he shares his prospective boss’ skepticism on climate change, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to head the Interior Department on Tuesday told a Senate panel that human-generated global warming is real and must be dealt with — but he stressed that any action must be weighed against the economic harm it could cause.

Rep. Ryan K. Zinke, Montana Republican, told a confirmation hearing that he’s committed to protecting America’s public lands and the environment. But he made clear that under his leadership, the Interior Department could undo Obama administration policies that have curtailed coal mining and oil-and-gas drilling on federally owned land. The Obama administration also has greatly restricted drilling offshore, moves that could come under new scrutiny if Mr. Zinke is confirmed.

“The climate is changing. That’s indisputable,” said Mr. Zinke, a former Navy SEAL and second-term congressman, under questioning from Democratic Sen. Bernard Sanders. “Man has had an influence. I think that’s indisputable as well.”

But, he quickly added, “I think where there’s debate is what that influence is and what we can do about it.”

Mr. Zinke’s handling of climate change at Tuesday’s hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources suggests he’ll look to thread the needle between protecting the environment and promoting economic growth in his new post. If confirmed, he would have oversight of hundreds of millions of acres of federal lands, all U.S. national parks, national monuments and energy development on government property and would also serve as the federal government’s chief liaison with American Indian tribes.

He said that, unlike the tack taken by the Obama administration, his Interior Department would promote safe coal mining and drilling on public lands, all with the goal of creating jobs and promoting energy independence.

“The president-elect has said we want to be energy independent. … It is better to produce domestically under reasonable regulation than watch it be produced overseas with no regulation,” he said.

But some Democrats on the panel accused Mr. Zinke of ignoring the economic growth that a move to more renewable energy such as solar and wind power could provide.

“I think it’s a false choice, because if we don’t address [climate change] it’s going to cost us a tremendous amount of resources,” said Sen. Al Franken, Minnesota Democrat.

Mr. Zinke’s appearance Tuesday is the first of three sessions this week for Mr. Trump’s proposed energy and environment team. On Wednesday Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, tapped to be the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, will come before a Senate panel. And on Thursday, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry will answer lawmakers’ questions as he seeks to become the next energy secretary.

Each is expected to be confirmed, though Mr. Pruitt in particular likely will face tough questioning from Democrats over his staunch opposition to climate change regulations and past criticisms of federal regulatory overreach.

In addition to dealing with climate change and energy exploration, Mr. Zinke also vowed to restore trust and open lines of communication with officials and residents of Western states, where distrust of Interior Department land policies run high. That trust, he said, has been frayed by a Washington bureaucracy that often makes rules and regulations without proper local input.

Mr. Zinke also said he’ll try to steer tens of millions of dollars in federal infrastructure money toward repairing the country’s national parks, and would mount an aggressive public relations effort to get more young Americans to visit those parks.

Mr. Zinke also will face pressure to roll back some of President Obama’s recent national monument designations. Mr. Obama has used the federal Antiquities Act to set aside tens of millions of acres of land as national monuments, effectively shutting it off from energy exploration and, in some cases, hunting and fishing.

On some occasions, lawmakers said, those designations come over the protests of local officials and residents, including Mr. Obama’s recent creation of the Bears Ears monument in Utah.

“With the stroke of his executive pen, the president of the United States can upend communities, change traditional ways of life … and lock up hundreds of thousands of acres of land with one action,” said Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican.

Mr. Zinke vowed to discuss the issue with Mr. Trump, and said local input should be considered before any new monuments are created.

“If you start at the local community level, at the grass roots, and you build and there’s participation, then we get ahead of the problem,” he said.

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