Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana, nominated to serve as secretary of the Department of Interior, became Donald Trump’s latest cabinet pick on Tuesday to separate himself from the president-elect on a key policy position.
During a Senate confirmation hearing, Zinke said that global climate change was “not a hoax,” a contradiction to what Trump has tweeted in the past.
Zinke’s comment came during an exchange with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democrat from Vermont, who pressed the Montana congressman and former Navy SEAL commander about his position on global warming.
“Man has had an influence. I think that is indisputable as well,” Zinke said while appearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “I think that where there is debate is what that influence is, and what we can do about it.”
Later, Zinke seemed to hedge his comments, stating the “need to be prudent” and “there is debate on both sides of the aisle.” He was then cut off by Sanders, who said, “Actually there’s not a lot of debate right now. The scientific community is virtually unanimous that climate change is real and causing devastating problems.”
As interior secretary, Zinke would be in a position to influence how the federal government manages the impacts of climate change, ranging from droughts in the West to loss of species due to a warming climate. He also would oversee the U.S. Geological Survey, one of several federal agencies that performs research on climate change.
Trump in 2012 tweeted that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” He later backed away from that claim, calling it “a joke.” But after winning the election, Trump appointed an well-known climate change denier, Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, to head his environmental transition team, raising questions about where he stands on the science.
Several of Trump’s cabinet nominees, including Sen. Jeff Sessions and former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, have taken positions contradictory to Trump. The president-elect in response has tweeted he wants his nominees “to express their own thoughts, not mine,” but the divergence has left many wondering about future policies of the executive branch.
During his confirmation hearing, Zinke was unequivocal in stating he would not support sale of federal lands, or transfer of them to the states. Some House Republicans have floated proposals to transfer vast tracts of federal lands to states that want to manage them, but both Zinke and Trump have said they would not support such an approach. “Without question, public lands are America’s treasures,” Zinke said Tuesday.
Some environmental groups are opposing Zinke’s nomination, saying he’s been inconsistent in his votes and statements about management of federal land, while taking big contributions from the oil and gas industry. “Given what is at best a mixed record, it’s clear that Rep. Zinke lacks an abiding commitment to the Interior Department’s full mission,” Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.
Despite that opposition, Zinke faced relatively mild questioning from Democrats on Tuesday and he is expected to be easily confirmed by the full Senate.
By becoming interior secretary, Zinke would no longer be in a position to run against Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat who will be up for reelection in 2018. Democrats are cheered by that prospect.
Tester was one of two members of Congress who introduced Zinke Tuesday, endorsing his nomination and stating, “It is very important for someone who knows the West to serve as interior secretary.”
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth