Conservationists fear Hastings will lean to businesses

WASHINGTON -- Republican Rep. Doc Hastings says any criticism of his environmental record is off-base for one reason: He's spent his entire career in Congress trying to clean up a massive nuclear mess in his Central Washington district.

"If you can't say that is being environmentally sensitive, then I don't know what your definition of environmentally sensitive is. When people try to characterize me as being against the environment, I honestly have to shake my head," he said Thursday.

Last week, as Republicans formally took control of the House of Representatives and Hastings became a new face of power on Capitol Hill, there were both cheers and fears. As he took the gavel as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, environmentalists braced for the worst, while business interests applauded.

His record as a 16-year House member has been polarizing: In 2009, Hastings received a score of zero from the League of Conservation Voters, and he has a lifetime rating of 96 from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"On environmental issues broadly, he's really just about one of the worst, easily," said Leda Huta, the executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition.

Hastings, 69, is regarded as a close ally of the oil and gas industry, which gave him more than $84,000 during the 2010 election cycle, ranking as his top contributor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Hastings voted against a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and against proposals to create more federal wilderness and conservation areas. He also opposes the Endangered Species Act.

"It's well known that his scores on environmental issues broadly are not good," said Tom Uniack, the conservation director of the Washington Wilderness Coalition.

Business interests couldn't disagree more.

"I can tell you we are excited about him taking over the committee, and think he'll do an outstanding job," said Dan Naatz, vice president of federal resources at the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

While his committee hasn't even yet met, environmental groups fear Hastings' panel will open up more federal land for development and push aggressively for more offshore oil drilling.

Bill Arthur, deputy national field director for the Sierra Club, said Hastings' instincts on environmental issues "will not be particularly helpful." But he said that as a committee chairman Hastings is in a new position and will have to "work and play well" with senior appropriators on the other side of the aisle.

In the interview, Hastings offered few specific plans for his committee, saying it's still too early. "This is only my second day," he said.

But he said he expects to hold oversight hearings into the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and other topics, contending that Congress has been negligent in not doing enough oversight. He said those hearings, depending on what topics they target, could lead to specific legislation.