Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., didn’t appear to win many converts Tuesday among the Republicans most skeptical of her nomination to be Interior secretary, despite testifying that she understands what oil and gas production means to their communities.
“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 before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “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.”
The committee’s Democratic chairman, Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, has indicated he remains on the fence about the nomination. Haaland’s critics are hoping the confirmation hearing will highlight her opposition to fossil fuels, thereby swaying Manchin to oppose the nomination.
After the hearing, Manchin issued a press release highlighting Haaland saying she would work with him on one of his priorities: extending abandoned mine land reclamation fees set to expire in 2021. The release still did not indicate whether he will back the nomination.
During a session that ran a little over two hours, Haaland mostly stuck to the time-honored tradition of Cabinet nominees avoiding commitments to specific policy actions and instead promised over and over to work with senators on their issues, listen to all sides and follow the law. The committee members will have another chance to pepper Haaland when the committee reconvenes at 10 a.m. Wednesday for a second round of questions.
Several Republicans on the committee from energy-rich states pointed to comments she made previously about the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground and her opposition to new oil and gas infrastructure.
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., asked if she would recommend extending the administration’s moratorium on oil and gas leases on public lands and how she would make up for the resulting loss of education revenues. Haaland stated that she would pursue the president’s agenda, not her own.
When he asked if she continues to support a ban on fracking and no new pipelines, she again said she would support the president’s agenda.
“But do you personally support a ban on fracking and no new pipelines?” Daines repeated.
“If I am confirmed as secretary, I would be serving at the pleasure of the president and it would be his agenda that I would move forward,” Haaland said.
When asked about families losing jobs because of Biden’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, Haaland referenced her own background as a financially struggling single mother. She brought up her family members who are ranchers and how much they care for the land and their animals. And she talked up the economic benefits of the administration’s environmental proposals.
“I think we can do it all,” Haaland said. “I think we can work together. I think we can protect our public lands. I think we can create jobs.”
Haaland would be the first Native American to lead the Department of the Interior.
While some senators — including Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. — mentioned tribal issues and noted the symbolic achievement that Haaland’s confirmation would mark, many senators on the committee focused on local and regional issues.
Asked by Manchin if she would be “receptive” to requiring hard-rock mining companies — those that dig for gold, silver, copper and other minerals — to pay royalties to the federal government for their activities, Haaland said she would.
“I’m very familiar with abandoned mines,” Haaland said, adding that such sites are common in New Mexico. “We have a lot of them in New Mexico, particularly on the Navajo Nation, and we’ve seen that it’s polluted water.”
Under the Mining Act of 1872, hard-rock mining firms do not pay royalties to the federal government for their activities.
Murkowski asked Haaland if she would back three projects in Alaska: a crude oil plan from ConocoPhillips known as Willow, a road construction effort called the Ambler project and the series of leases issued in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals halted construction on the Willow project in mid-February, siding with environmental plaintiffs.
“I want to make the best decisions, if I’m confirmed, for the people of your state,” Haaland replied.
“Defending these specific projects would be critically important,” Murkowski said before turning to Manchin and asking for a second round of questions.
The panel’s top Republican, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, said during the hearing that many of his constituents consider Haaland’s views “radical” when it comes to fossil fuel production.
Afterward, he criticized her performance.
“I think she’s failed to answer so many questions that members have, so we’re gonna have another round of questions tomorrow,” Barrasso told reporters. “Most of the members on my side of the aisle have additional questions. Ones I’ve talked to said that she’s failed to answer their questions adequately.”
Haaland’s hearing began on a somewhat bipartisan note, with her introduction to the committee from one of her home-state senators, Democrat Martin Heinrich, and Alaska Rep. Don Young, a Republican who has supported oil and gas exploration on public lands. Alaska has the highest percentage of Native residents of any state, followed by Oklahoma, New Mexico, South Dakota and Montana, according to census data. Haaland presented Young with a Native American bowl before the hearing.