WASHINGTON – Deb Haaland, a Native American congresswoman who is President Joe Biden’s historic pick for Interior Secretary, found herself defending not only the president’s aggressive efforts to stop drilling on public lands but also her own public statements opposing fossil fuel extraction.
The New Mexico Democrat nominated to head an agency leading Biden’s push to fight climate change was under steady pressure from Republicans during her confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee. They questioned her past positions calling for an end to natural gas fracking and pipeline development, and brought up her tweet in October that “Republicans don’t believe in science.”
“Rep. Haaland’s positions are squarely at odds with the mission of the Department of Interior,” Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the panel’s top Republican, said as the hearing opened. “That mission includes managing our nation’s oil, gas, and coal resources in a responsible manner. Not eliminating access to them.”
Haaland tried to deflect the criticism from several Republican senators over oil, gas and coal development, saying public lands could be used more for clean energy, such as wind and solar. And she promised to help fossil fuel workers find new opportunities in an economy that will rely less on carbon emitting industries..
“There’s no question that fossil energy does and will continue to play a major role in America for years to come. I know how important oil and gas revenues are to (fund) critical services,” she told the committee. “But we must also recognize that the energy industry is innovating, and our climate challenge must be addressed.”
Although most Republicans on the panel seemed unsatisfied by her responses regarding how she would handle environmental policies from endangered species to mineral extraction, Haaland is still expected to win confirmation in the Democratically controlled Senate and make history by becoming the first Native American member of the presidential cabinet.
A second round of questioning will take place by the committee Wednesday before a confirmation vote in the coming days.
If confirmed, she would helm an agency with more than 70,000 employees that is responsible for managing 480 million federal acres – nearly one fifth the land area of the United States – as well as 2.5 billion acres of the Outer Continental Shelf. The department’s portfolio includes more than 400 national parks, some 100 national monuments and approximately 500 national wildlife refuges.
The sprawling agency not only includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service but also manages and administers 55 million acres of estates held in trust by the United States for hundreds of Native American tribes, including the Pueblo of Laguna of which Haaland is a member.
Pressing issues such as land rights, health care, and sacred site protections may not be resolved to every tribes’ satisfaction in a Biden administration, tribal leaders and other Native American advocates acknowledge. But they expressed a sense of hope that, with Haaland, they would have a key ally in the cabinet and that true give-and-take on hot-button issues might finally take place.
Republican and Democratic senators alike acknowledged the historic nature of Haaland nomination – even if they didn’t always like the answers they got.
“It is indeed very significant your nomination to this position as the first Native American woman,” said Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski before sharing her unhappiness over Biden’s…