WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President-elect Donald Trump on Thursday named U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke of Montana, a former Navy SEAL commander who questions whether humans are largely the cause of climate change, as his choice for secretary of the interior.
If the Senate confirms Zinke, a Republican, to lead the Interior Department, he will head an agency that employs more than 70,000 people across the country and oversees more than 20 percent of federal land, including national parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite.
As a one-term U.S. congressman, Zinke took several stances favouring coal, which is high in carbon emissions when burned. Coal output suffered during the administration of Democratic President Barack Obama as the development of competing fuels natural gas and solar and wind power soared.
Zinke, 55, pushed to end a moratorium on federal coal leases on public lands by 2019, saying it had resulted in closed mines and job cuts.
He also helped introduce a bill expanding tax credits for coal-burning power plants that bury carbon dioxide emissions underground to fight climate change, a measure supported by coal interests and some moderate environmental groups. In introducing the bill, Zinke said he wanted to keep "coal, oil and gas communities viable for generations to come."
The Interior Department includes the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which has oversight over offshore oil drilling and wind power; and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Trump's potential Cabinet is filling with nominees from top fossil fuel-producing states. He tapped Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, an ardent opponent of Obama's measures to curb climate change, to run the Environmental Protection Agency and Rick Perry, a climate sceptic and former governor of Texas, to head the Department of Energy.
Zinke would replace Sally Jewell, who in January put a temporary ban on coal mining on public lands, cancelled leases for drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic coasts, expanded wildlife protections and cracked down on methane emissions from the energy industry on tribal and public lands.
The choice of Zinke surprised some observers because Republican officials had wanted him to challenge Democratic Senator Jon Tester in Montana's 2018 Senate race.
Many environmental groups oppose Zinke for his commitment to fossil fuels and his view that the science on climate change is "unsettled." Bradley Campbell, the president of the Conservation Law Foundation feared that Zinke would be given the task of unravelling Obama's protections of the environment and federal lands.
Considering Zinke's history on climate and his defending fossil fuel interests, "it is likely that we will be facing an uphill battle," Campbell said.
Zinke, a regular hunter and fisherman, impressed Trump's son, Donald Jr., who shares those interests. Land Tawney, the president and chief executive officer of the outdoors group Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, said Zinke would bring a conservationist voice to Trump's leadership team.
Zinke is a proponent of keeping public lands under federal ownership, which puts him at odds with some in his party who would like to privatise the lands or put them under control of the states.
"He's been great at keeping public lands in public hands and goes against the Republican establishment," Tawney said.