By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Tuesday defended himself during a Senate hearing over recent reports about his use of private planes and lavish spending, saying he was tired of "innuendo" and "insults."
Zinke 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 over $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.
The hearing concerned the Interior'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 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 done enough analysis on a proposal to cut the royalty rate for offshore drilling by a third to 12.5 percent. Zinke responded 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 due to advances in drilling technology, but the increase has come mainly from 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 revenues to support coastal restoration projects.
Last October, after being lashed by powerful hurricanes, Louisiana’s share of expected offshore drilling royalties turned out to be half the $175 million it expected.
Zinke said he would supply the committee with data when available.
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by David Gregorio)