The confirmation hearing for Representative Ryan Zinke (R-MT), President-elect Trump’s interior secretary nominee, quickly entered contentious territory yesterday. Zinke, a Republican congressman from Montana, was grilled by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources about climate change, sexual assault in the National Parks Service, fossil fuel exploration on public land, and the sovereignty of tribal nations.
Should he be confirmed, Zinke would helm the organization that manages 500 million acres of public land, 1.7 billion acres of ocean, and the land’s fossil fuel and mineral rights. In fact, the Department of the Interior is responsible for about a quarter of the United States’ energy resources.
That worries environmentalists and lawmakers who sit across the aisle from Zinke. The junior congressman grew up on the edge of a national park. But he has had a spotty voting record when it comes to protecting the environment, according to a scorecard from the special interest group League of Conservation Voters.
Still, yesterday’s hearings revealed that Zinke’s positions differ somewhat from those of his likely future boss, Donald Trump. Here are a few of the standouts:
Zinke doesn’t think that climate change is a hoax — but he also thinks the ocean is a big carbon emitter
During the hearings, Bernie Sanders (I-VT) cut Zinke off as he launched into a story about glaciers — asking Zinke: “Is the President-elect right? Is climate change a hoax?” Zinke responded that no, he does not believe that climate change is a hoax. He thinks that climate change is real, and that “man has had an influence” on it, he says. However, he added that there’s debate over what exactly that influence is. Sanders set him straight — there is no debate: ”The scientific community is virtually unanimous that climate change is real and causing devastating problems,” Sanders said.
Later in the hearing, Zinke hedged that he’s not an expert, and floundered when he tried to explain to Senator Al Franken (D-MN) that the ocean is a big contributor to atmospheric carbon dioxide.
That isn’t exactly right. “There are places in the oceans that are sources of CO2 to the atmosphere, like the eastern equatorial Pacific, but overall the ocean is absorbing CO2,” paleo-oceanographer Heather Ford told The Verge. True, if global temperatures warm too much, the ocean could stop being able to hold on to as much dissolved carbon dioxide and leak the gas back into the atmosphere. That would make global warming even worse. But right now, the ocean is a net carbon sink — which means that it absorbs more than it releases.
So, Zinke stands apart from Trump in his willingness to say that climate change is not a hoax. But to be clear, that’s a pretty low bar.
Zinke values government scientists
Unlike Trump, whose transition team made alarming moves to single out and intimidate climate scientists before he even took office, Zinke seems to value experts. When he answered Sanders’ questions, he said: “I’m not a climate scientist expert.” But instead of leaving it at that, he gave a shout out to the people who are climate scientists with the US Geological Survey, the Department of the Interior’s only scientific agency. “We have great scientists there,” he said.
He even cited a need for more climate change research — although he did it by questioning the research that already exists. He told Franken that current climate change models are flawed; we need “objective science” to develop something better. Picking on climate models is a time-honored tactic among climate change denialists. It’s true — no model is perfect, especially if we don’t have good measurements of oceanic and atmospheric conditions. But the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that the models that show global warming is real, bad, and we’re making it worse are frighteningly credible.
Still, he pledged to Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) that he would advocate for scientific funding regardless of how the research fits in with the reigning political and philosophical ideologies. “Management decisions should be based on objective science,” he says. “If confirmed, I do have a lot of very, very talented people within the Interior Department that are objective... I want to make sure that we do coordinate and open up the channels between the different agencies and public and private institutions that have a lot of talent, too.”
He thinks sexual harassment is bad for morale
Last year, a series of interior department investigations and reporting by High Country News revealed that our national parks are rife with sexual harassment. A culture of retaliation makes victims in the park service reluctant to come forward.
Multiple senators pressed Zinke about what he plans to do about it, if he’s confirmed. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a decorated veteran of the armed services, called Zinke out for being a sexual assault apologist and worried aloud that he would ignore the problem.
“You in fact … recently defended the President-elect’s bragging about his own commitment of sexual assault by dismissing it as locker room talk,” she said. And now, Zinke would be in charge of the National Park Service, which has a major sexual harassment problem. She asked how the committee could be sure he won’t look the other way.
“I take issues of sexual assault and harassment absolutely seriously,” Zinke responded. But when Duckworth asked whether he’d had any conversations with President-elect Trump about Trump’s statements, Zinke said had not.
He added that sexual harassment is bad for morale, which misses the point. Sexual harassment and assault need to be stopped because they are devastating and destructive to the people who are harassed and assaulted, not because these crimes make the victims and their colleagues less enthusiastic about their jobs.
Still, he reaffirmed to Stabenow that he would address the culture of sexual harassment: “You should absolutely have the the right expectation of a work environment that is conducive to success. And if there is a culture of sexual harassment, that’s just flat wrong. And I’m going to stamp it out, if confirmed.”
Federal land should stay in federal hands — but drilling is okay (Trump agrees)
Zinke told Sanders unequivocally that he is against transfer or sale of public land to the states, and does not support privatizing the national parks. Trump agrees, according to a recent interview with Field & Stream. That’s surprising given that Republicans in congress seem to favor allowing states to take control of the federal land within their borders.
In fact, Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) pointed out that Zinke himself recently voted for a House rules package that devalues public land, making it easier for states to take it over. Zinke explained that this was one of many rules in the package, and it reflected how upset people are about our current land policies. But, he said, it has no weight unless it’s executed. “It’s a shot across the bow that we have to do something,” Zinke said.
Neither Trump nor Zinke are opposed to drilling or mining on public land. Zinke added he also would consider installing solar panels and wind turbines on that land. He’s said it before, and he said it again during yesterdays hearings: Zinke believes in “all of the above energy.” That includes clean coal, which continues to not be a thing.
President-elect Trump will be sworn into office on Friday, and NPR reports that Zinke could be confirmed as early as next week.