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Senate panel advances DOE, Interior nominees

Originally published by E&E News

A Senate committee today approved President Trump's nomination of Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana to lead the Interior Department and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) to lead the Energy Department, with a few Democrats joining with Republicans in support of the GOP candidates.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's 12 Republicans were joined by three Democrats in approving Zinke's nomination to lead Interior on a vote of 16-6-1. Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada approved the nomination, as did Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent.

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon abstained, citing concerns about Zinke's possible desire to move the management of the nation's forests into the Interior Department. The Forest Service is currently housed in the Department of Agriculture.

The same bloc of Republicans voted in favor of Perry's nomination to lead DOE in a vote of 16-7. Also supporting Perry were Manchin, Cortez Masto, King and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the committee's Republican chairwoman, told reporters timing for a floor vote isn't clear.

"I wish I could tell you that we were at the front of the line, but I don't know that. I think the good bipartisan vote that we had in committee will be attractive," Murkowski said. "I would think that leadership would want to get these nominees that are perhaps attracting less controversy moved through the process, but I can't tell you that; that's the leader's decision."

Despite the smattering of bipartisan support, the committee's top Democrat spoke at length about the Trump administration's threat to the nation's climate research and work on renewable energy and efficiency.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) questioned Perry's assertions that he would stand up for DOE scientists and their work and pondered aloud how much autonomy Perry would have under the Trump administration.

 

Despite the smattering of bipartisan support, the committee's top Democrat spoke at length about the Trump administration's threat to the nation's climate research and work on renewable energy and efficiency.

She also criticized him for refusing to clarify whether he would push back against the Trump administration's reported desire to scrap appropriations for offices within the Energy Department tied to renewables and energy efficiency that have bipartisan support.

"I think it's bad news for energy efficiency and electricity," Cantwell said during an interview following the vote. "We've asked him since the hearing, we've asked him to clarify since the hearing on this, and he said look at his record; when we did, we were like, 'OK, not the direction we want to go.'"

Other committee members signaled that Perry would face pressure should the Trump administration move forward with rumored budget cuts at DOE or projects they oppose.

"We're concerned about that, and that's not his desire to do it, and I'm just hoping he's able to explain to the administration and to President Trump and his people that that's not the right direction to go," Manchin said. "He basically stated that he would not be in support of that. We'll see how much leeway they give him."

Heinrich said he opposed Perry because the former governor called for the elimination of DOE in the past and could pose a threat to climate science and research at the department.

"His past statements on eliminating the department, an unwillingness to commit to the applied energy research and climate science done at our national labs and universities, and the transition team questionnaire that attacked the integrity of climate scientists all signal where the Trump administration is headed," Heinrich said.

Cortez Masto, a Democrat who voted for Perry, said she received assurances in private meetings that he would listen to her concerns about advancing the now-stalled Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in her home state of Nevada.

"I have my fair share of concerns about Gov. Perry's past rhetoric on the science of climate change and the overall value of the Department of Energy's mission," she said. "However, I am encouraged by the fact that when he ran for president, he stated his support for consent-based siting and spoke against Yucca Mountain, arguing that if Nevadans do not want a nuclear repository, then they should not have it."

Cortez Masto said in a statement that Perry is "someone I can work with to ensure Yucca Mountain never sees the light of day." Perry has not yet clarified his position on the nuclear waste project, which stalled under the Obama administration.

King, who voted for both nominees, said that while he differed with Perry and Zinke on a number of issues, he received assurances in private meetings that both nominees would work with him in "good faith," even if that runs counter to Trump's beliefs.

"My vote in support of them today, though, does not mean that I will relent in pushing them to do more on vital issues such as fighting climate change, which affects Maine more and more every year, or promoting clean, renewable energy sources that will benefit people throughout the state," King said in a statement.

Questions for Zinke

Although Cantwell also opposed Zinke's nomination, she expressed optimism about the conservation stance he took during his confirmation hearing (E&E Daily, Jan. 18).

"I know you want to be a Teddy Roosevelt kind of secretary of the Interior," she said after his nomination was reported out. "But right now, you're working with an administration who in their own infrastructure bill says that they're going to pay for it by oil and gas on federal lands, all over federal lands. I don't know where that stops."

Cantwell suggested that her vote against Zinke was mainly in protest of the president he would be serving.

"While I'm not supporting your nomination today, I hope that as we move forward that we see a different response from this White House on how important the resource management of our nation is and the existing environmental law is to our country," she concluded.

Zinke's openness to moving the Forest Service from USDA to Interior was a key concern among some Democratic committee members who opposed his nomination (Greenwire, Jan. 30).

Yesterday, Stabenow, who voted against Zinke, told reporters that such a bureaucratic reshuffling would be "a very bad idea."

The Forest Service mainly manages "land owned by someone, so it's a different approach than public lands," explained Stabenow, the ranking member on the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. "That whole approach that we've had on that is to support good stewardship efforts on private lands. So I think the U.S. [Department of Agriculture] is far and away the best to be doing this."

In a statement released after the markup, Wyden elaborated on why he didn't attend or vote by proxy.

"Today I abstained from voting on Rep. Zinke because Oregonians need clarification on recent news reports that indicate he may be interested in moving the management of all the nation's forests into the Department of the Interior, including those currently managed by the U.S. Forest Service," Wyden said in the statement. "Instead of wasting time and taxpayer dollars, what's needed is effective, balanced forest management."

Wyden, however, left open the possibility that he could support Zinke's nomination when it reaches the floor, if he likes what the congressman has to say about the administration's forest priorities.

Reporter Geof Koss contributed.

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2017. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net