Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), the interior secretary nominee, acknowledged the climate is changing as a result of human activity and vowed to address health and education on Native American reservations during his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday.
The pledges came after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asked the former Navy SEAL a series of rapid-fire questions about global warming, which has emerged as a flashpoint as President-elect Donald Trump stacks his Cabinet with fossil fuel executives and climate science deniers.
“The climate is changing, that’s indisputable,” Zinke said. “I don’t believe it’s a hoax. I believe we should be prudent.”
But Sanders abruptly cut him off when he suggested there is a lot of debate “on both sides of the aisle.”
“Well, actually, there’s not a whole lot of debate now,” Sanders said. “The scientific community has very truly unanimously declared that climate change is real and causing devastating problems. There is debate on this committee, but not within the scientific community.”
Zinke scored a paltry 3 percent on a League of Conservation Voters’ ranking, meaning he has overwhelmingly voted against environmentalists during his time in office. Yet environmental groups appear to be less horrified by him than by other nominees, offering tepid support for the lifelong hunter and fisherman.
Asked whether he’d support drilling or mining on public lands, Zinke suggested doing so is critical to creating jobs.
“We need an economy of jobs, too,” Zinke said, then began to regurgitate a line used earlier in the hearing: “In my experience seeing probably 63 different countries, I’ve seen what happens ―”
“I don’t mean to be rude,” Sanders said, cutting him off. “But I’m taking your answer to be yes, we should drill.”
Zinke then said he is “absolutely against the transfer or sale of public lands.”
“Couldn’t be any more clear,” he added, seemingly frazzled by Sanders’ tone.
Sanders then asked Zinke what he planned to do to address the poor access to health care and education available on reservations. In addition to controlling 500 million acres of land and extraction rights on it, the interior secretary oversees relations with Native American tribes and reservations.
“As bad as the VA is, Indian health in Montana is worse,” Zinke said, referring to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ notorious record of failure to provide care to wounded soldiers who return home. “It is worse.”
Sanders asked whether that acknowledgment meant he plans to prioritize the issue. Zinke said yes.
Earlier in the hearing, Zinke noted ongoing protests, led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which Trump said he supports completing. He chalked up protesters’ fury at being attacked by guard dogs, pepper spray and fire hoses in frigid temperatures to historic tensions between tribes and U.S. authorities.
“Last time the Sioux nations got together, I’d say General Custer would probably say that was not a good issue,” Zinke said, referring to George Armstrong Custer, a U.S. Army officer killed during a battle with warriors whose tribes he terrorized and massacred. “There are deep cultural ties. There is a feeling that we haven’t always been a fair consultant.”
He stopped short of saying what he’d do to be fairer.