By Valerie Volcovici and Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Representative Ryan Zinke of Montana, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of Interior, on Tuesday said he would consider an expansion of energy drilling and mining on federal lands but would ensure sensitive areas remain protected.
The former Navy SEAL sought to outline a measured approach to the job of managing America’s national parks, forests and tribal lands during a four-hour Senate confirmation hearing that was mostly cordial, lacking some of the hot-tempered grilling that has marked other sessions to vet Trump’s cabinet nominees.
"Yes," he said in response to a question from Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska about whether he would review drilling curbs imposed by President Barack Obama's administration in her state, home to vast petroleum deposits both onshore and beneath Arctic waters.
"I can guarantee you it is better to produce energy domestically under reasonable regulation than overseas with no regulation ... We need an economy."
But he added he was committed to protecting sensitive wildlife habitats and to keeping federal lands under federal control to ensure they are preserved for future generations, so "my granddaughter’s children can look back and say that we did it right."
The Interior Department oversees territories covering a fifth of the United States' surface from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico, including rich deposits of oil, gas and coal and important pasturelands for ranchers.
Zinke, an avid hunter and angler, emerged as a surprise pick to head the department in part because he has embraced federal stewardship of public land, diverging from the Republican Party's official position to sell off acreage to states.
But as a congressman he has also fought for increased energy development, a position that has worried conservationists and which fits neatly with Trump's campaign vows to bolster the U.S. energy sector by scaling back regulation.
Over the last eight years, the Interior Department has sought to limit industry access to federal lands and played a key role in Obama's agenda to combat climate change by curbing greenhouse gas emitting industries.
Under Obama, the department banned new coal mining leases on federal property early in 2016. More recently the agency 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.
Zinke said he believed Trump could "amend" Obama's moves to declare millions of acres of federal property as national monuments. But he said that any move Trump made to rescind a designation would immediately be challenged.
He did not comment directly on whether he would seek to reverse Obama's federal coal-lease ban but said he believed coal plays an important part in the U.S. energy mix and has previously pushed to end the moratorium.
Zinke was the first of three Cabinet heads Trump has chosen to oversee his environment and energy portfolio to face Senate scrutiny this week. All three have opposed Obama's measures to combat global climate change by targeting carbon dioxide emissions.
Trump's pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, was to testify on Wednesday, and Trump's choice for Energy secretary, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, was to testify on Thursday.
Zinke told committee members that he believes humans contribute to global climate change – a statement that appeared to clash with Trump’s views. Before running for the White House, Trump called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to weaken U.S. businesses, a position he has since defended.
"I do not think it is a hoax," Zinke said.
But he added that he believed there is still debate over the degree to which humans have an impact, and what should be done about it, adding that regulations could sometimes hurt jobs without helping the environment.
He said, for example, he would support efforts by the U.S. Congress to cancel recent regulation imposed by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management aimed at preventing leaks of methane - another gas scientists blame for climate change - from oil and gas installations.
In his opening remarks, Zinke struck a moderate tone, saying that he recognizes that some federal lands require strong protection. He also called himself an "unapologetic admirer of Teddy Roosevelt," a former Republican president who pioneered public land conservation.
Zinke also said he would tackle a multi-billion dollar backlog in maintenance at national parks and promised to ensure greater sovereignty for tribes.