Haaland tells senators she sees ongoing role for fossil fuels

She would be the first Native American to serve as Interior secretary; some GOP senators say they don't like her energy positions

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., is President Joe Biden's nominee for Interior secretary. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., is President Joe Biden's nominee for Interior secretary. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 23, 2021 at 6:00am, Updated at 10:30am

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., sought Tuesday to reassure skeptics on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that she would respect the importance of fossil fuel production if she’s confirmed as Interior secretary.

“As I’ve learned in this role, there’s no question that fossil energy does and will continue to play a major role in America for years to come,” Haaland said in her opening statement. “I know how important oil and gas revenues are to critical services. But we must also recognize that the energy industry is innovating, and our climate challenge must be addressed.”

Haaland faces significant resistance from Senate Republicans. And the committee’s Democratic chairman, Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, has indicated that he remains on the fence about the nomination.

In his opening statement, Manchin described the size and scope of the Interior Department and said he wants to hear more from Haaland before making up his mind.

“It truly is an enormous and important job, and it is critical that the secretary be ready to take on the management of the department,” Manchin said.

The panel’s top Republican, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, cited past statements by Haaland about keeping fossil fuels in the ground and opposing new fossil fuel infrastructure. He highlighted the importance of oil and gas production on public lands to states such as Wyoming and New Mexico.

“I am troubled by many of Rep. Haaland’s views, views that many in my home state of Wyoming would consider as radical,” Barrasso said.

Haaland has run into more opposition than President Joe Biden’s nominees to lead the Energy Department, Transportation Department and the EPA, who all sailed through their confirmation hearings despite Republican criticism of the administration’s overall climate agenda.

Haaland's GOP critics have trained their rhetorical fire specifically at her, with committee member Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., indicating after meeting her that he will do what he can to block the nomination.

'Radical issues'

“After our conversation, I’m deeply concerned with the Congresswoman’s support on several radical issues that will hurt Montana, our way of life, our jobs and rural America, including her support for the Green New Deal and President Biden’s oil and gas moratorium, as well as her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline,” Daines said in a statement.

“I am also concerned by the responses I received about the role of the department and lack of appreciation for issues that impact Montana such as wildlife management and hunting and sportsman access. I’m not convinced the Congresswoman can divorce her radical views and represent what’s best for Montana and all stakeholders in the West.”

In contrast to that pointed opposition to Haaland, Daines voted at the committee level to advance former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s nomination to run the Energy Department. He also voted to confirm former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg as secretary of Transportation. Michael Regan, who would be the first Black man to lead the EPA, breezed through his confirmation hearing before the Environment and Public Works Committee.

[Harm to schools from drilling-lease pause may be overstated]

Several Republicans on the committee who voted against Regan’s nomination praised him personally and said their votes were really a commentary on White House policy.

With the Senate split evenly between the two parties, even one Democratic defection could derail Haaland’s nomination. And her Republican critics could try to block her through procedural tactics such as putting a hold on the nomination.

They are likely to press her at the hearing on many policies, including the administration’s revoking approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Capitol Hill Republicans have pressed to restore that approval, but a senior administration official said Monday that “the decision will not be reconsidered.”

Haaland supporters have characterized her as a welcome, independent voice at an agency dominated by industry insiders in recent years.

Former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt had a background lobbying on behalf of energy clients, a history reflected in his personal financial disclosure statements.

No industry ties

In her own financial disclosure, Haaland reported no assets or retirement accounts, but she did report owing $15,000 to $50,000 in student loans.

A member of Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico, she would be the first Native American confirmed as Interior secretary.

The only outside income she reported was $175 in the form of an annual per capita payment from Pueblo of Laguna. Haaland has talked about her background as a financially struggling single mom who went on to get a law degree and successfully run for Congress.

“From a conflicts-of-interest perspective, she is as easy as they come because she has no financial entanglements or former clients that raise those concerns,” said Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-leaning watchdog organization.

Kyle Herrig, founder and president of the left-leaning group Accountable.US, hosted a press call Monday defending Haaland and casting her GOP critics as defending the oil and gas industry. Republicans have described their opposition to Haaland as rooted in her policy positions, including the bills she has co-sponsored.

But Herrig said there’s a “curious pattern” to the Biden nominees who have sparked the strongest Republican opposition, including Neera Tanden, his pick for director of the Office of Management and Budget.

“You would have to ask them, but it does seem to be that white males are having a lot easier time getting through the Senate than diverse nominees,” Herrig said.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., suggested Haaland’s opponents have various motivations, including a fear of the unknown because she will be her own person as she works to address climate change.

“The protection, the conservation of our public lands and waters and the role they can play in remediating and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions is huge, and that’s a role that has not been played,” Grijalva said. “And Deb has talked about that consistently in her career.”

He also pointed to the history being made in having a Native American in charge of a department that has a fraught history dealing with federally recognized tribes.

“What we’re doing is turning history upside down on its ear,” Grijalva said.

A Westerner

Gerald Torres, professor of environmental justice at the Yale School of the Environment and the Yale Law School, said Haaland’s opponents seem concerned she will act more as an advocate than a fair administrator and be hostile to extracting fossil fuels from public land. But Torres said that doesn’t take into account the fact that Haaland is a Westerner herself.

“She understands the, in some ways, the outsized role that the federal government plays in the West,” Torres said. “But she also understands the role that natural resources have played in Western economic development.”

At least one bit of bipartisanship is expected at the hearing.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the most senior House member and longest-serving Republican in the chamber’s history, and Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., are slated to introduce Haaland to the committee Tuesday.

It’s typical practice for a nominee’s home-state senators to introduce them. But it's an unusual role for a House member, especially one from a different party.

Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor and nominations expert, said it was a shrewd move by the Biden administration to secure Young’s introduction.

“I think it is a really savvy move because what you want is bipartisanship,” Tobias said by phone. “And I think that Young gives you that. I think it works in her favor for confirmation.”

A spokesman for Young did not respond to a request for comment.

Alaska has the highest percentage of Native residents of any state, followed by Oklahoma, New Mexico, South Dakota and Montana, according to census data.

While the House has no say in confirmation votes, Haaland would have to appear before its committees for budget and oversight hearings if confirmed.

“Of course the House doesn’t have anything to do with this,” Tobias said. “But still, you don’t want the House to be up in arms.”