US Interior chief Ryan Zinke defends travel spending, blasts 'insults'

WASHINGTON, March 13 (Reuters) - U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Tuesday defended his use of private planes and challenged reports of lavish spending, saying he was tired of "innuendo" and "insults."

Zinke, who spoke before a Senate committee, has been dogged by the release of details of his use of charter planes and helicopters for travel, as well as recent receipts showing the department spent more than $130,000 to install new doors at his office at a time of proposed budget cuts and fee hikes at national parks.

"I resent the fact of your insults, and I resent the fact that you mislead," Zinke told Senator Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy Committee, after she pressed him on his spending.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke:

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KATAHDIN WOODS AND WATERS NATIONAL MONUMENT, ME - JUNE 14: With Mount Katahdin in the background, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke talks to the media during a tour of the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. Zinke was touring the monument because it is one of dozens of monuments up for review under an executive order from President Trump. (Staff Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rides a boat to Georges Island, while traveling for his National Monuments Review process, in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts, U.S., June 16, 2017. Picture taken June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is interviewed by Reuters, while traveling for his National Monuments Review process, in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 16, 2017. Picture taken June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (L) high fives National Park Service Ranger Beth Jackendoff on his National Monuments review visiting sites around Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 16, 2017. Picture taken June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke waits to take the stage with President Donald Trump for his on infrastructure improvements, at the Department of Transportation in Washington, U.S. June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (C) talks to National Park Service Rangers, while traveling for his National Monuments Review process, in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 16, 2017. Picture taken June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 12: Ryan Zinke visits SiriusXM Studios on September 12, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)
SHANKSVILLE, PA - SEPTEMBER 10: Visitors listen to US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke at the groundbreaking of the Tower Of Voices at the Flight 93 National Memorial on the 16th Anniversary ceremony of the September 11th terrorist attacks, September 10, 2017 in Shanksville, PA. United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field outside Shanksville, PA with 40 passengers and 4 hijackers aboard on September 11, 2001. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 20: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on June 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on U.S. President Donald Trump's proposed FY2018 budget request for the Interior Department. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 20: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on the department's FY2018 budget request on June 20, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
KATAHDIN WOODS AND WATERS NATIONAL MONUMENT, ME - JUNE 14: With Mount Katahdin in the background, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, left, talks with Lucas St. Clair, right, during a tour of the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. Zinke was touring the monument because it is one of dozens of monuments up for review under an executive order from President Trump. St. Clair's family gifted the land for the monument. (Staff Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 20: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on the department's FY2018 budget request on June 20, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
MILLINOCKET, ME - JUNE 15: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks with members of the Katahdin Chamber of Commerce and Millinocket town council during a breakfast at Twin Pines Lodge in Millinocket on Thursday, June 14, 2017. Zinke is in Maine for a review of the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument, one of over two dozen reviews ordered by President Trump. (Staff Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke listens while US President Donald Trump speaks at the US Department of Transportation June 9, 2017 in Washington, DC. Trump visit of the Transportation Department is part of a White House push to overhaul America's infrastructure. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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The hearing concerned the Interior Department's 2019 budget. Zinke also got heat from senators for proposals to raise national park visitor fees, expand offshore oil drilling, and lower royalty rates paid to the U.S. government by oil and gas companies to encourage more production.

"I never took a private jet anywhere," Zinke added, saying it was "innuendo" to suggest he was on a luxurious private plane when he instead took charter propeller flights.

Zinke said his Democratic predecessor, Sally Jewell, also racked up significant expenses traveling to remote parts of the country.

"She took private charter airplanes and took helicopters. As interior secretary she was out hiking and doing what she was supposed to be doing," Zinke said.

Senators asked if the Interior Department has sufficiently analyzed a proposal to cut the royalty rate for offshore drilling by a third to 12.5 percent. Zinke responded that the data so far is "inconclusive" and a decision had not been reached yet.

"I would say there is an argument (for cutting)," Zinke said. "There is an argument on the other side too."

U.S. oil production has soared in recent years as a result of advances in drilling technology, but the increase has occurred mainly on private, rather than federal, lands.

Zinke also faced questions from Louisiana’s Republican Senator John Kennedy, who was concerned about the impact of cutting royalties on Gulf Coast states that rely on the revenue to support coastal restoration projects.

Last October, after Louisiana was lashed by powerful hurricanes, the state’s share of offshore drilling royalties turned out to be half the $175 million it expected.

Zinke said he would supply the committee with data when available.

Zinke also took some heat from senators opposed to his January proposal to open up 90 percent of federal waters to drilling between 2019 and 2024. The proposal is opposed by Democratic and Republican lawmakers in a dozen states.

Washington state's Cantwell accused Zinke of playing politics when he told Florida Governor Rick Scott, who objected to drilling off of Florida's tourist-dependent coastlines, that his state would be exempt from any expansion in drilling.

Zinke said the Florida decision is "still in the process" of being reviewed and that he would recognize the opposition of other states, like Washington, that are "passionately opposed to oil and gas drilling off their coast."

 

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