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Energy producers with eye on public land find ally in Trump's Interior pick

Rep. Ryan Zinke, President-elect Donald Trump's choice to head the U.S. Department of the Interior, would provide energy producers with an ally and leaves environmental advocates wary about the future of production on federal land.

Zinke, R-Mont., is likely to try to reverse Obama administration Interior policies often cited as limiting to energy production. The Montana lawmaker opposed the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's recently finalized rule to limit methane emissions from oil and gas wells on public and tribal lands, calling the regulation "duplicative and unnecessary." He said the rule was a "stark reminder" that the U.S. needs to invest in infrastructure projects such as TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL crude pipeline to reduce flaring of excess gas.

Like Trump, Zinke also opposes the transfer of federal lands to state or private ownership, something many Republicans on Capitol Hill support to varying degrees.

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Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont.

As Montana's lone representative in the House, Zinke has backed energy production on federal land, including strong support for coal mining, earning him industry praise.

"Congressman Zinke has been a great representative for the people of Montana, including folks who depend on mining for their livelihood," said Rick Curtsinger, spokesman for Cloud Peak Energy Inc. "He is a conservationist, a sportsman, a great friend to Indian country, and has demonstrated his independence and integrity in his support for maintaining federal public lands. We hope that he will be confirmed and believe he will continue to evidence a strong balance in his approach to running the Department of Interior."

Montana is one of two states that are home to the Powder River Basin, the nation's largest coal-producing region. In September, Zinke sponsored the Certainty for States and Tribes Act, which took direct aim at the Obama administration's recent effort to amend the lease program in response to criticism about how coal is valued, land is leased and federal royalties are paid.

The Montana congressman has worked with the state's Crow Nation to make the Indian Coal Production Credit permanent, offering a boost to local production.

Zinke's advocacy on behalf of coal has also extended beyond state borders, including strong support for export facilities along the West Coast, despite strong local opposition in Washington and Oregon. After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it had halted the permitting process for the proposed Gateway Pacific project in Washington, Zinke publicly challenged Col. John Buck, the Seattle district commander for the Corps who announced the decision, saying he had "failed in his job as commander."

In terms of broader energy policy, the Interior nominee has professed to support an all-of-the-above approach that includes use of fossil fuels and renewable or alternative energy resources. In 2015, Zinke voted against an amendment to the House energy and water appropriations bill that would have eliminated all funding for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

But environmental groups were not reassured by Trump's choice to lead Interior, pointing to the congressman's frequent resistance to the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.

"Zinke is firmly in the past, clinging to plans to mine, drill and log public lands to benefit corporate polluters, supporting dangerous and dirty projects like the Keystone XL pipeline, and opposing efforts to clean up our air. The need to keep dirty fuels in the ground is urgent, especially on public lands," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said.

Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Marissa Knodel echoed that sentiment, suggesting that Zinke "will use Interior to plunder public lands."

"Representative Zinke and Donald Trump are determined to turn our public lands and waters into energy sacrifice zones," she said. "Zinke denies climate change science, and champions increasing fossil fuel development for corporate profits over the health and safety of people and the planet. A secretary of the interior should defend our natural heritage, not the fossil fuel industry."