Cantwell Demands Commitments from the Interior Secretary Nominee Ryan Zinke

Cantwell Asks about Public Lands and Water Management, Taxpayer Fairness, Coal Policy, Tribal Treaty Rights and Sovereignty, Landslide Detection Funding and the Columbia River Treaty

Cantwell Holds Top Democratic Leadership Position on the Committee Where Zinke Testified

Washington, D.C. – Today, Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) questioned the president-elect’s nominee to be the Secretary of the Interior, Rep. Ryan Zinke. 

Today’s hearing is about determining whether this nominee is committed to making sure that we minimize environmental harm, that we pay for cleanup and that we have one fundamental principle that continues to be that ‘polluters pay,’” Sen. Cantwell said. 

The Interior Secretary is responsible for stewardship of public lands and natural resources, in addition to making sure the interests of all American consumers and tribes are protected. Sen. Cantwell demanded answers on coal, federal ownership of public lands and tribal consultation.

Federal Coal Program Reforms and Coal Self-Bonding

Sen. Cantwell made it clear that she supports the efforts of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to reform the federal coal program, including the pricing of federal coal leases. Currently the government sells these leases for mere pennies per ton of coal, even though burning it costs Americans closer to $70 per ton. This unfair return on a public resource comes on the backs of the American taxpayer. 

Sen. Cantwell mentioned the GAO report issued today, finding that coal companies are the only onshore industries that are able to self-bond. Sen. Cantwell asked if independent financial assurances should be required. Rep. Zinke responded, “I think bonding is important. … Some of the reclamation problems we have and we face in the West are still not repaired. … I think we need to have the courage today to look 100 years forward and look back and say ‘we did it right.’”

The current Interior Secretary Jewell ordered a review of the program’s science for the first time in four decades—called a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement. Rep. Zinke introduced a bill on these efforts, implying that updating the science is a good thing, but needs to happen quickly. In that vein, Sen. Cantwell asked Rep. Zinke if he could agree that the 40-year old science should be updated in the Environmental Impact Statement underway; he replied: “I think a review is good.”

Coal Export Terminals, Treaty Rights and Tribal Consultation

Coal export terminals are also an issue of grave concern to Washingtonians and impacted tribes. Last year, the Army Corps of Engineers determined that a proposed coal export terminal near Bellingham would have a greater than de minimis impact on the Lummi Nation’s treaty rights to fish in the waters where the terminal and related shipping would be located. At the time, Rep. Zinke tried to pass legislation forcing the Corps to continue its review of the project over the Lummi Nation’s objections, but during today’s hearing, he committed to respecting all tribes' treaty rights and sovereignty. 

Sen. Cantwell asked Rep. Zinke to clarify, “So, you believe in the tribal sovereignty of the Lummi tribe to object in this case?” Rep. Zinke responded, “They certainly had every right to object.”

The Land and Water Conservation Fund and Public Lands

In the last Congress, Sen. Cantwell introduced a bill to permanently reauthorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Sen. Cantwell successfully negotiated the permanent reauthorization of the program as part of the bipartisan energy bill that passed the Senate last Congress.

Last Congress, Rep. Zinke co-sponsored a House bill to permanently reauthorize the program. Sen. Cantwell asked if Rep. Zinke still supported a permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Rep. Zinke acknowledged he thought that the Land and Water Conservation Fund “has been important in Montana, certainly many other states,” and supported permanently reauthorizing the program.

On a related note, Sen. Cantwell expressed the fears of her constituents on public lands management in her opening statement: “My constituents want to know: with a new administration, are these public lands going to face an unbelievable attack by those who would like to take these public lands away from us and turn them over back to states? Or are we going to continue to manage these resources for the incredible investment that they are and continue to improve them, so we get even more economic return?

The Role of Science at the Department

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is the nation’s primary earth science agency and is housed within the department. The USGS produces the science to ensure our nation is prepared for hazards like landslides, floods and earthquakes, which is of particular concern to those living along the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

Sen. Cantwell discussed using light detection ranging as a way of predicting landslides with Rep. Zinke, specifically asking: “Will you continue to push LIDAR funding as one of your next budget requests for USGS?” Rep. Zinke committed to reviewing the current policies and “making sure we have the right data. For the specific method on how we get there, I think there is a discussion as technology goes forward.”

Water, Fish and Yakima

Rep. Zinke is well-known for being an avid fisherman and sportsman. Recreational and commercial fisheries are the lifeblood of communities across the United States. But drought and diversion of water for other uses has decimated salmon runs, which has threatened the livelihoods of communities. 
Last Congress, Sen. Cantwell introduced water legislation with solutions designed to balance the needs of people and the environment. The bill would help secure water for years to come and restore one of largest sockeye salmon runs in the contiguous United States. The management and budget of the federal projects within this legislation fall under the Interior Department. 
So Sen. Cantwell asked Rep. Zinke about this effort: “I want to get your commitment to continue the work of and implement the recommendations of the Bureau on the Yakima River Basin Project ... that these water issues are not earmarks, they are moving forward on serious drought issues for our nation,” Sen. Cantwell said.

On Yakima, Rep. Zinke responded, “I’m looking forward to working with you and making sure it is done.”

Columbia River Treaty

The Columbia River Treaty is important in Washington state and the Pacific Northwest, including tribes, power companies, environmental interests, transportation and agriculture interests, the fishing industry, counties and towns. Although work is ongoing with the current administration, Sen. Cantwell would like to begin formal talks on modernizing the treaty. She reiterated in her opening statement the importance of “re-committing to modernize the Columbia River Treaty,” noting that the treaty “needs a lot of attention and direction.” She would like the Trump administration to make it a priority in bilateral talks with Canada.