WASHINGTON (CN) – Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke bristled Tuesday when senators pressed him over his alleged use of taxpayer funds for private plane travel, telling lawmakers the reports were “insults and innuendos.”
“I never took a private jet anywhere,” Zinke told the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
The secretary appeared Tuesday to discuss the Interior Department’s $11.7 billion budget request for fiscal year 2019, which features a $1 billion reduction from the current level of spending and a 13 percent cut overall.
The move is in line with the Trump administration’s “efforts to shift more funding to defense needs,” Zinke said, noting that despite some decreases, spending for oil and gas development on public lands will increase in the 2019 budget.
But before senators delved into those details, the committee’s ranking democrat, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, pressed Zinke on the status of an ongoing investigation of his travel expenses led by the department’s Office of the Inspector General.
“While my constituents are hearing about private jet rides and expensive doors, they want to understand why someone is proposing to raise park fees,” Cantwell said, referring first to the reports last week alleging Zinke spent $139,000 for an office door and next, to the department’s October proposal to increase park fees.
“I resent the facts of your insults. I resent the fact that they are misleading,” Zinke said.
The secretary said the “private jet rides” were actually chartered prop planes and the only available means of travel while he visited remote energy development sites in Alaska with committee chairwoman Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
Another late night flight from Montana to Nevada, which cost roughly $12,000, is also under review. The flight was imperative, the secretary said, after he spent “an entire day traveling across Nevada.”
The secretary’s trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, which cost $3,150 according to an Interior department spokesperson, is also under review.
Zinke continued to defend the expenses, telling senators his predecessor’s [Sally Jewell’s] use of a chartered plane and helicopter was justified, even if it included an unscheduled hike to explore the interior.
“Even though she took a private charter airplane and took helicopters, as Interior secretary, she was out hiking and doing what she was supposed to be doing,” he said.
Zinke also faced renewed criticism over an April executive order issued by President Donald Trump which opened 47 offshore oil and gas exploration leases for sale, including six off the California coast, 12 in the Gulf of Mexico and 19 off the coast of Alaska.
Zinke exempted Florida from the plan in January, raising the hackles of attorneys general in a dozen states including Maryland, California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington.
The attorneys general submitted a joint letter to the secretary asking him to reconsider given the negative impact offshore drilling would have on their state’s environment, tourism and economy.
When Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, asked Zinke if he would consider taking Maine off the list of potential offshore drilling sites, Zinke said his decision was made in the name of fairness.
“The last administration took 94 percent [of available sites] off. What I did was zero-base it so I could put everything up on the table for discussion. If I would have left Florida off in the beginning, it would have been arbitrary and capricious,” he said.
The push to drill both onshore and off is spurred by the department’s billowing deferred maintenance backlog for park infrastructure.
According to Zinke, approximately $18 billion is expected to be raised via energy leasing revenue, which could be reinvested into crumbling park infrastructure including tunnels, bridges, roads, visitors centers and even bathrooms.
Tuesday’s hearing marked the first of several budget oversight meetings Zinke will attend in the coming days. His next meeting comes Thursday with the House Committee on Natural Resources where he could discuss other cuts to the budget, including the department’s elimination of all funding for the U.S. Geological Survey’s studies on environmental impacts from oil and gas development.