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Interior Nominee Deb Haaland Faces Tough Questions On Climate Goals

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., during her Senate hearing Tuesday to be Interior Secretary. If confirmed, she would be the first Native American to hold the post.
Jim Watson
Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., during her Senate hearing Tuesday to be Interior Secretary. If confirmed, she would be the first Native American to hold the post.

President Biden's historic pick to manage the nation's public lands and natural resources promised to strike a balance between fossil fuel and renewable energy development during her confirmation hearing Tuesday.

Congresswoman Deb Haaland would be not just the first Native American Interior secretary, but also the first in a presidential cabinet. She faced tough — and, at times, misguided — questioning from Republican lawmakers worried about the president's climate goals.

Numerous Republican senators focused their questioning on Biden's oil and gas leasing "ban" on federal lands, citing projected economic and job losses from the executive action. Haaland repeatedly pointed out that the president has not banned new oil and gas leasing, but paused itwhile his administration reviews the federal leasing program.

Biden has promised to move the country away from climate-warming fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy, "but that isn't going to happen overnight," Haaland said. Fossil fuels, the Democrat said, "will continue to play a major role in America for years to come."

The Interior Department manages one-fifth of the land in the U.S., including national parks, wildlife refuges and tribal lands held in trust. Those lands generate billions of dollars of revenue not only in energy production but from recreation. They are also the source of roughly one-quarterof the country's total greenhouse gas emissions.

The Biden administration has made the climate crisis one of its top priorities. To limit global warming, scientists say we need to rapidly cut greenhouse gas emissions and conserve wild spaces. As Interior secretary, Haaland would play a key role in accomplishing that goal, and she'd come to the position with a unique perspective.

As a 35th generation New Mexican, Haaland was the second Native American woman ever elected to serve in Congress. She also represents a fossil fuel-rich state, which is aiming to makea similar transition to cleaner energy sources.

Haaland's nomination comes on the heels of a broad grassroots campaign, spurred by environmental and tribal interests who advocated for her to lead the Interior Department — an agency that has historically been used to suppress and disenfranchise Native Americans.

Interior is responsible for managing the government-to-government relationship between the U.S. and its 574 federally recognized tribes. Haaland has promised to improve that relationship and restore tribal consultation on development and projects that would affect tribal land. But most of the questioning during her hearing was on the country's energy production, and potential changes to it.

"I almost feel like your nomination is this proxy fight for the future of fossil fuels," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

As a congresswoman, Haaland took an aggressive stance on climate change, calling it "the challenge of our lifetime." She spoke out against fracking, pipelines and fossil fuel development on federal lands — statements that Republican lawmakers cited in their opposition to her nomination.

Asked about those comments, Haaland repeatedly deflected, saying that if she was confirmed as secretary she would move forward Biden's agenda, "not my own." Biden has said that he would not ban fracking or permanently halt oil and gas development on public lands.

Republican opposition to Haaland's nomination has grown in recent weeks. Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called some of her views "radical."

Congressman Don Young of Alaska, the longest-serving Republican in Congress, spoke on Haaland's behalf, though. They'd formed a friendship, he said, while working on bipartisan issues in the House of Representatives, even when they disagreed.

"She'll work for us and she'll reach across the aisle," Young said, pointing out his state also depends heavily on fossil fuel development. "If we have people at the Department of Interior such as Deb, maybe we'd have a balance."

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Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.