Introducing himself as an "unapologetic admirer of Teddy Roosevelt," Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) told lawmakers considering his confirmation as the next secretary of the Department of Interior (DOI) that he believes climate change is real, a significant departure from President-elect Donald Trump.
During a cordial confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Tuesday, Zinke said he also supports energy development of all forms on public and tribal land, but his first order of business as DOI secretary would be to restore trust between the department and state and local governments.
No Hoax, But 'We Should Be Prudent'
The most striking takeaway from the hearing may have been Zinke's response to Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), who grilled him briefly on climate change.
"President-elect Trump has...stated in his view that climate change is a 'hoax,'" Sanders said. "I know that you're not here to be administrator of the [Environmental Protection Agency] or secretary of the [Department of Energy], but climate change is in fact very important for issues that DOI deals with. Is President-elect Trump right? Is climate change a hoax?"
Zinke replied that "the climate is changing, that's undisputable. Man has had an influence. I think that's undisputable as well. I think where there is debate on it is [asking] what that influence is and what can we do about it." He added that if confirmed, he will "inherit" the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). "We have great scientists there. I'm not a climate scientist expert, but I can tell you I will become a lot more familiar with it, and it will be based on objective science."
That prompted Sanders to ask Zinke again if he thought climate change is a hoax. "I don't believe it's a hoax," Zinke said. "I believe we should be prudent. That means I don't know definitively. There's a lot of debate on both sides of the aisle."
Sanders fired back at both Zinke and the committee. "Actually there's not a whole lot of debate now," he said. "The scientific community is virtually unanimous that climate change is real and causing devastating problems. There is the debate on this committee, but not in the scientific community."
'All-of-The-Above' Energy Supporter
When prodded by Sanders if he would support fossil fuel development on public lands, Zinke paused before replying, "We need an economy and jobs, too." He later added that he is "an all-of-the-above energy" supporter, which would include wind and solar.
"I think that's the better solution going forward: all-of-the-above energy."
In response to questions from Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) on the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, Zinke said that among the Indian nations, "there is a feeling that we haven't been a fair consultant [and] partner. We need to listen to that voice, and that's part of the trust [issues at DOI].
"Outside of Washington, DC, when you start going west...there is a lot of anger [and] mistrust. Not everywhere, but enough where I'm concerned. We need to be better partners. We need to work together. We need to work together as a Congress. We all rise and fall in the same tide, and we all love our public lands. The duty of the DOI secretary is to make sure we have broad consensus of what we're doing. And every state is different."
Later, Zinke said, "I would characterize that the view from the Potomac [River] is a lot different than the view from the Missouri [River]. You do need to listen to the local folks because they live there. The consequence of an action that is one-size-fits-all affects real people. I do think you need to have a voice. You need to listen and you need to make sure that you involve communities at its lowest level."
Against Sale of Public Land
In his opening remarks, Zinke said his second-highest priority -- after restoring trust between the DOI and states and local governments -- would be tackling an estimated $12.5 billion backlog of maintenance and repair work at the country's National Parks. He testified later that he is "absolutely against transfer or sale of public land. I can't be any more clear."
Zinke has not always agreed with his Republican counterparts on the issue of the federal government transferring land to states, on concerns that states could, in turn, sell the land and make it private, thereby denying access to others for recreation, energy development and the like.
Last June, Zinke voted against a bill transferring ownership of up to 2 million acres of public lands owned by the U.S. Forest Service to state ownership. He also voted against the GOP leadership twice in 2015 -- opposing a budget in May because it included language that would have allowed for the sale of public lands, and supporting an amendment in July that would have prohibited the DOI from conducting large sales of public lands.
Trump nominated Zinke to lead the DOI last month. Zinke was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2014 and won re-election in 2016. He was elected by his Republican colleagues to serve on the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, has been a supporter of the Keystone XL pipeline and voiced opposition to some of the regulations imposed on the oil and gas industry.
Zinke earned a degree in geology from the University of Oregon in 1984 and joined the military two years later. He retired as a U.S. Navy SEAL commander in 2008.