— -- President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to head the Department of Interior said today that he would consider reversing a decision from the Obama administration last year to halt oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, a move that could allow fossil fuel development in region.
“The president-elect has said we want to be energy independent,” Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, said during his Senate confirmation hearing. “I can guarantee you it is better to produce energy domestically under reasonable regulation, than watch it be produced overseas with no regulation.”
Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the committee considering Zinke’s nomination, has actively opposed the Obama administration’s plan regarding oil development in her state. She asked if Zinke would commit to conducting a formal review and look into overturning it. He said he would.
The Obama administration announced its decision last fall, citing environmental concerns and fragile ecosystems in the area.
"Given the unique and challenging Arctic environment and industry's declining interest in the area, forgoing lease sales in the Arctic is the right path forward," the current Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said at the time.
As secretary of the interior, Zinke would oversee the nation’s public lands and the any fossil fuel extraction on federal property. He today said he supported environmental regulations, but added: “We also have to understand we need an economy. If we don't have an economy as a country, then the rest of it does not matter… Energy is a part of that economy.”
Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, has been viewed by Democrats as relatively moderate on environmental issues compared to some of Trump’s other cabinet selections.
During the hearing, he broke with other Republicans and members of the incoming administration and he said he believed in climate change. Specifically, he said it was not “a hoax,” as Trump has tweeted in the past.
“Climate is changing; man has had influence,” Zinke said, responding to rapid fire questions from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). “I don’t believe it’s a hoax…I believe we must be prudent.”
The hearing, for the most part, centered on policy specifics regarding land and water management and the relationship between the federal government and Native American tribes, which also falls under the Department’s purview.
During one of the more heated exchanges, Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, raised the accusations of sexual harassment that have been swirling from within the National Parks Service. Duckworth said she was concerned that Zinke may not take the issue seriously, given that he downplayed some of Trump’s past lewd comments about women that came up during the presidential campaign.
“You described it as ‘locker room talk,’” Duckworth said.
“I take issues of sexual assault and harassment absolutely seriously,” he replied. “As you know as a military commander, the tolerance is zero.”