Washington Post

Hearing for Haaland, first Native American pick to run Interior Dept., focuses on fossil fuels

Leaders of the Senate Energy Committee, both from oil-producing states, grilled Deb Haaland on Biden’s opposition to new drilling leases on federal land

By Darryl Fears

The Senate confirmation hearing for Deb Haaland, nominated to become the first Native American interior secretary, morphed Tuesday into a proxy fight over the future of fossil fuels as lawmakers from oil- and gas-producing states grilled her regarding the Biden administration’s embrace of green energy.

Nearly all the Republican members of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee questioned Haaland about her past statements regarding the need to stop drilling on federal lands managed by the Interior Department. President Biden, who says the country needs to transition away from burning fossil fuels to mitigate climate change, has paused new drilling leases on public lands and waters — a sharp departure from the Trump administration, which worked to expand drilling.

Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, asked in rapid succession if the federal government should permit new gas wells and coal leases in states that rely heavily on them.

“The state of Wyoming has collected over a billion dollars annually in royalties and taxes from oil, gas and coal produced on federal lands within our borders, within our borders and Wyoming isn’t the only state that benefits from energy production on public lands,” he said. “We shouldn’t undermine America’s energy production and we should not hurt our own economy. Yet that’s precisely what the Biden administration is doing by signing an executive order to ban all new oil, coal, gas leases on federal lands, the president is taking a sledgehammer to Western states’ economies.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) flagged the executive order Biden signed on his first day in office that placed a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). “You’ve got to understand, [Alaskans are] looking at this and saying, ‘Wait a minute, why is this administration out to get us?’ ” Murkowski told Haaland. “I don’t think they’re out to get us, but I do think that there is a definite threat to the resource industry that our state is blessed to be able to host.”

And Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) said Haaland’s views “are frankly alarming” to her constituents, and asked what she would say to people who could lose jobs if oil production in the Gulf of Mexico was limited.

Through it all, Haaland — who would also become the first Native American Cabinet secretary if confirmed — remained calm, stressed that she wanted to work with supporters and opponents alike, and kept her answers short.

Haaland, 60, sought to defuse aggressive questions from Republicans by reminding them that she was named the most bipartisan freshman congresswoman during her first term in the House as a Democrat from New Mexico, a seat to which she was reelected in November.

And she repeatedly stressed that any changes to fossil fuel production would be Biden’s decision, saying her role if confirmed would be to execute his policy.

“I couldn’t agree more that collaboration is important,” Haaland said during the more than two-hour-long hearing, which adjourned at noon and is scheduled to continue at 10 a.m. Wednesday. “I was the highest-rated freshman in Congress on bipartisan collaboration. We can have different views. We can think differently. I feel like the people of New Mexico sent me to Congress to get work done and that’s exactly what I’ve done.”

On the question of oil and gas leases, Haaland said Biden paused new leases to review them and that it did not amount to a ban. At any rate, she added, leasing permits currently under review are going forward.

Haaland also emphasized that although she and the president support solar, wind and other clean energy to decrease the greenhouse gas emissions that are heating the planet, the transition to renewables would be slowly phased in as fossil fuels continue to dominate the American energy agenda.

Interior oversees nearly 500 million acres of surface land and almost 700 million acres of resources that lay beneath it. On top of that, it manages 2.5 billion acres on the outer continental shelf, about 50 million acres of Native American land held in trusts, more than 400 national parks, 500 wildlife refuges and a water supply for 31 million people.

The value of that and more generates $12 billion for treasury, $315 billion to the U.S. economy and nearly 2 million jobs, said Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), the committee chairman.

Although nearly every Republican on the committee appeared either hostile or cool to Haaland’s bid to lead Interior, only Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said outright that he would vote against her nomination.

Haaland was not without Republican supporters — they just weren’t in the Senate. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) introduced Haaland to the panel and lavished her with praise.

Young called Haaland a friend who reached across the aisle to work with him on the House Natural Resources Committee. “It’s my job to try to convince her she’s not all right and it’s her job to convince me she’s … right,” he said. Biden has a right to choose his own Cabinet, he added. “I’m supporting her because she’s American Indian. As you mentioned, it’s a long time overdue.”

Haaland repeatedly said she would “work my heart out” to make sure that American workers are able to transition to good paying, green energy jobs.

“I’m not a stranger to the struggles many families across America face today — I’ve lived most of my adult life paycheck to paycheck,” said Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna.

She spoke about the labor that will be in demand to restore the land disrupted by mining, cap old wells leaking methane, and repair and upgrade national parks.

The stark difference between Haaland and her immediate predecessor, David Bernhardt, a onetime oil industry lobbyist tapped by President Donald Trump, showed when Manchin asked Haaland a perfunctory question after swearing her in to testify. “Do you hold any funds in a blind trust?”

“No,” replied Haaland, a single mother who at times has relied on food stamps.