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Trump Interior pick to clarify stance on federal land development

By Valerie Volcovici

A U.S. Senate committee will grill President-elect Donald Trump's pick to run the Department of the Interior, Congressman Ryan Zinke of Montana, during a confirmation hearing on Tuesday that is likely to focus on how he would balance development and conservation on America's vast public lands.

The former Navy SEAL commander, an avid hunter and angler, emerged as a surprise pick to head the department in part because he has embraced federal stewardship of national parks, forests and refuges — rejecting the Republican party's official position to sell off acreage to states that might prioritize drilling, mining and grazing in some areas.

While an advocate for federal control, Zinke has also fought for increased coal mining on federal lands, a position that has worried conservationists but fits neatly with Trump's vows to bolster the U.S. energy sector by scaling back regulation and opening up more publicly-held land to development.

The Interior Department oversees territories covering a fifth of the country's surface from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico, comprising sensitive wildlife habitats, iconic landscapes, and overlying rich deposits of oil, gas and coal and important pasture lands for ranchers.

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Over the last eight years, the Interior Department has sought to limit industry access to federal lands and played a key role in President Barack Obama's agenda to combat climate change, as it proposed rules aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions from energy production on federal land.

Obama's Interior Department banned new coal mining leases on federal property early in 2016, and more recently placed parts of the offshore Arctic and Atlantic off-limits to drilling and declared national monuments that protect large parts of Utah and Nevada from development.

As a first-term congressman, Zinke pushed to end the coal moratorium, saying it had resulted in closed mines and job cuts, and introduced a bill expanding tax credits for coal-burning power plants that bury carbon dioxide emissions underground. He has also supported the Crow Indians in his state, who want to mine and export coal through terminals in the Pacific Northwest.

Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Senate energy and natural resources committee holding the hearing, is likely to press Zinke on whether he would adopt recommendations by the current Interior Department to reform federal coal leasing to ensure companies pay higher royalties and account for its impact on climate change.

Lawmakers are also expected to seek clarity on Zinke's commitment to keeping public lands in federal control, after he voted with fellow Republicans on the first day of the new session on a provision tucked into a broader rules package that could make it easier to transfer federal lands to states.

Zinke's hearing will be the first of three cabinet heads Trump has chosen to oversee his environment and energy portfolio to face Senate scrutiny this week. Trump's pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, will testify Wednesday, and Trump's choice for Energy Secretary, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, will testify Thursday.

(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Mary Milliken)