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Biden nominee for Interior Secretary faces tough questions on energy views

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., speaks Tuesday in Washington during the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on her nomination to be Interior Secretary. [Jim Watson/Pool via AP]
Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., speaks Tuesday in Washington during the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on her nomination to be Interior Secretary. [Jim Watson/Pool via AP]

Rep. Debra Haaland, President Joe Biden’s nominee to be Interior Secretary, faced tough questions Tuesday from Republicans concerned about her past criticisms of fossil fuel production and the administration’s early actions to curb drilling on public lands.

On the first day of her confirmation hearings, the New Mexico Democrat told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that she understood the need for oil and gas production and that the moratorium on new exploration permits was just to allow for a review of federal policy.

“I don’t know when that review will be finished,” she said, adding that “valid and existing leases will move forward.”

Haaland, who would be the first Native American cabinet member if she is confirmed, told Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford that the administration’s moratorium on new drilling permits didn’t apply to tribal land and that she understood his concerns about the disparate treatment of drilling created by executive orders signed by Biden last month.

Pressed by Lankford, Haaland declined to say whether she would recommend that tribal land be treated differently from other public lands when the administration develops a policy for oil and gas production.

Haaland, 60, has been in the U.S. House since 2019. A law school graduate and former small business owner, Haaland served as chair of the New Mexico Democratic Party.

“I’m not a stranger to the struggles many families across America face today,” she told the committee. “I’ve lived most of my adult life paycheck to paycheck. I have pieced together health care for me and my child as a single mom, and at times relied on food stamps to put food on the table.

“It’s because of these struggles that I fully understand the role Interior must play in the president’s plan to build back better, to responsibly manage our natural resources to protect them for future generations so that we can continue to work, live, hunt, fish and pray among them.”

Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. The Interior Department includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs and oversees tribal trust lands.

Haaland said expanding broadband internet access in Indian Country would be a top priority for her, along with boosting resources at the Indian Health Service and resolving cases of murdered and missing indigenous women.

Haaland has made strong statements in the past against fracking and oil pipelines and said last year that it would be “great to stop all gas and oil leasing on federal and public lands.” She said Tuesday that Biden does not oppose fracking and that her job at Interior would be to implement the president's policies.

Biden signed executive orders placing a moratorium on new permits for onshore and offshore exploration, alarming the energy industry and elected officials in states that rely on revenues from oil and gas production.

“In Wyoming, energy and mineral activity on Department of Interior land had a $17.3 billion economic impact for fiscal year 2019 and supported over 57,000 jobs,’’ said Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso, adding that Haaland’s home state of New Mexico also benefits greatly from energy and mineral production on federal land.

Haaland told the committee that “25% of our carbon comes from our public lands” and that “we want to move forward with innovation and all of this for our energy needs.”

She said moving to clean energy would create millions of jobs across many industries, but that traditional energy sources would remain in the mix.

“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. Together we can work to position our nation and all of its people for success in the future, and I am committed to working cooperatively with all stakeholders, and all of Congress, to strike the right balance going forward.”

The committee is scheduled to resume Haaland's confirmation hearing on Wednesday.

Chris Casteel

Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. Casteel covered the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City. From 1990 through 2016, he was the... Read more ›