Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, a staunch supporter of a proposed coal terminal in Whatcom County, won Senate confirmation on Wednesday as President Donald Trump’s Interior secretary.
The nomination, approved by the Republican-controlled Senate 68-31, gives him oversight of 400 million acres of public land, mostly in the West. He also will oversee the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In Congress, Zinke advocated for the Gateway Pacific Terminal, a $600 million facility in Whatcom County that would export about 48 million tons a year of coal mined in western states to Pacific Rim markets. The much-debated project has pitted industry groups and unions against environmental and community groups, and two Indian tribes against each other.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for the project in May, citing its impact on the fishing rights of the Lummi Nation. Zinke has countered that Montana’s Crow tribe would benefit from the project by sending coal mined on its lands to the new terminal.
“The Gateway Pacific Terminal is incredibly important to Montana, the Crow, and even to the blue-collar workers in Washington state because it is literally the gateway to economic prosperity and rising out of poverty,” he said last May. “It’s a sad day in America when even our Army Corps of Engineers can be wooed by special interests.”
Zinke also wanted to lift a moratorium on new leases for coal extraction on federal lands, 90 percent of which takes place in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. The Interior Department imposed the hiatus last year.
It’s a sad day in America when even our Army Corps of Engineers can be wooed by special interests.
Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, after the Corps denied a permit for Gateway Pacific Terminal last year.
Zinke, 55, a former Navy SEAL and Montana state senator, resigned as a delegate to the Republican National Convention last year to protest the GOP’s position in favor of land transfers to state or private groups.
Still, his stance on public lands has come into question in recent weeks after he voted in favor of a House rule that would allow federal land transfers to be considered cost-free and budget-neutral, making it easier for drilling and development.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Zinke at Interior should “concern every lover of our great and grand national parks.”
Dismissing the Republican’s claim to be like the late President Teddy Roosevelt, Schumer said, “You can’t be a Roosevelt conservationist if you sell off public lands.”
Countering the Democrat, Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines said Zinke “will be a strong advocate for our public lands.”
He was born in the West. He lives in the West. He understands it, he understands its people.
Senate Energy Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska
Zinke, a Republican in his second term as Montana’s sole House member, told senators at a January hearing that federal land management should be done under a multiple-use model that allows hiking, hunting, fishing and camping along with harvesting timber, mining for coal and drilling for oil and natural gas.
Zinke also pledged to tackle an estimated $12 billion backlog in maintenance and repair at national parks and stand firm against attempts to sell, give away or transfer federal lands.
Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she is not convinced that Zinke will be able to “stand up” to Trump and prevent oil, gas and mining companies from unduly exploiting public lands.
Cantwell also said Zinke appears willing to support transfer of some federal lands to states, citing his vote for the GOP-sponsored rules package. She worries that Zinke may weaken or repeal recent designations by President Barack Obama of national monuments, including Utah’s Bears Ears monument.
Senate Energy Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska called Zinke an excellent choice, noting that the fifth-generation Montanan is an avid hunter, fisherman and skier.
“He was born in the West. He lives in the West. He understands it, he understands its people,” Murkowski said.
During his hearing, Zinke rejected Trump’s claim that climate change is a hoax, saying it is indisputable that environmental changes are affecting the world’s temperature and human activity is a major reason.
“I think where there’s debate is what that (human) influence is and what can we do about it,” he said.