The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly confirmed Rep. Ryan K. Zinke to head the Interior Department, putting in place a secretary who’s poised to reverse Obama-era restrictions on energy development on public lands.
The confirmation of Mr. Zinke, a Montana Republican and former Navy SEAL, was held up by Democratic leaders in the Senate for over a month. While Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, voted against him and urged his colleagues to do the same, 16 Democrats ultimately voted in favor of Mr. Zinke.
He was approved by a vote of 68 to 31.
Mr. Zinke’s confirmation is a major step forward for President Trump’s so-called “America first” energy plan, which includes rolling back federal red tape that hampered oil-and-gas drilling and coal mining on federal lands over the past eight years.
Energy industry groups, eager to see a major shift away from the policies of the Obama administration, lauded the vote and said Mr. Zinke will challenge the notion that economic growth and energy production are incompatible with protecting the environment.
“While often pitted against each other over the last eight years, these efforts to support the economy and protect our environment work hand in hand every day across the country,” said Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “As a conservationist from a Western energy-producing state, Congressman Zinke appreciates the need to manage our nation’s lands and waters while implementing multiple-use policies that enable a variety of activities from conservation and recreation to job development and energy production.”
As interior secretary, Mr. Zinke, 55, will oversee a vast portfolio that includes more than 500 million acres of land, including America’s national parks and monuments, and energy exploration on federal grounds. The interior secretary also is the key government liaison with American Indian tribes.
Energy production on federal lands, largely stalled during President Obama’s eight years in office, is expected to be among Mr. Zinke’s top priorities.
Republicans pointed to the Obama administration’s January 2016 moratorium on new coal mining leases on federal lands as the type of economically harmful policy Mr. Zinke should reverse.
“A moratorium is not a responsible policy,” said Sen. Steve Daines, Montana Republican, just before the vote. “It is reckless. It’s misguided, leaving the states and the tribes to be reliant on mineral royalties, to lose out on these revenues and to lose out on these good-paying jobs that coal supports.”
Despite the bipartisan support for his nomination, some top Democrats objected and said Mr. Zinke will be a rubber stamp for the Trump administration’s energy policy, which progressives see as a step backward from former President Obama’s laserlike focus on renewable power and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“Our Republican colleagues want to make it easier to sell off or give away public lands and expand the footprint of oil-and-gas industries on public land. As usual, help those narrow special interests, hurt the average American,” Mr. Schumer said on the Senate floor just before the vote. Mr. Zinke “claims to be a [Teddy] Roosevelt conservationist but pledged his support for the Trump administration’s energy agenda, once again centered on efforts expanding drilling and mining on federal lands and waters.”
Mr. Trump’s full energy and environment team could be in place within the next several days. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, nominated to lead the Energy Department, is expected to come up for Senate confirmation by the end of the week.
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