“I acknowledge that we are on the ancestral homelands of the Nacotchtank, Anacostan, and Piscataway people,” Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico said in her opening remarks on the first day of her Senate confirmation hearing to lead the Interior Department.
It’s likely the first time a Cabinet nominee acknowledged tribal lands upon testifying before the Senate. If confirmed, Haaland — a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe — would also be the first Native American Cabinet secretary in history.
But it is her pledge to protect the environment and tribal communities that has some in the Republican Party up in arms. In the days leading up to Tuesday’s hearing, Republican Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Steve Daines of Montana, both of whom have financial ties to the oil industry, have attacked Haaland’s plans to transition away from fossil fuels and threatened to block her nomination.
Barrasso — the top Republican official on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which is considering Haaland’s nomination — said he is “troubled by many of [Haaland’s] radical views,” such as her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and support for the Green New Deal, both of which are supported by the majority of Democratic voters. The Wyoming senator, who has taken close to $1.2 million from Big Oil since his election to the Senate in 2007, pressed Haaland about her personal views on President Joe Biden’s executive actions to temporarily pause new oil and natural gas leases on public lands, and demanded she provide evidence that fracking actually contributes to the climate crisis.
The “radical” nature they’re referring to is Haaland’s career-long commitment to protecting the environment and Indigenous communities by challenging the status quo that relying on the fossil fuel industry is needed to bolster the economy. During her hearing Tuesday, Haaland repeatedly emphasized that, if confirmed as Interior secretary, she will work hard to bridge party lines and take Congress members’ concerns into consideration — but also said she would not push aside environmental concerns nor Biden’s climate agenda.
“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. I know how important oil and gas revenues are to fund critical services,” Haaland said in her opening remarks. “But we must also recognize that the energy industry is innovating, and our climate challenge must be addressed.”
The US Interior Department oversees the country’s 500 million acres of public lands, which are set to play a crucial role in Biden’s sweeping climate agenda to slash greenhouse gas emissions. But over the past few decades, the lands have instead been major contributors to the climate crisis: They hold massive reserves of fossil fuels, which are extracted and burned by oil and gas companies, thus releasing planet-warming emissions.
Biden, who has promised a climate-focused agenda, spent his first hours in office dismantling energy policies that catered to the fossil fuel industry and centering environmental justice throughout the federal government. One of the major concerns from Republicans is that a pause on new fossil fuel activity would negatively affect American jobs — a theme that served as the backdrop to their line of questioning during Haaland’s hearing.
But Haaland said she is committed to finding the right balance between economic growth and saving the planet. “As part of this balance, the Department has a role in harnessing the clean energy potential of our public lands to create jobs and new economic opportunities,” she said. “The president’s agenda demonstrates that America’s public lands can and should be engines for clean energy production.”
Despite GOP pushback, Haaland’s confirmation is still expected to go through, according to HuffPost, because the Republican Party is now in the congressional minority. Haaland could even gain the support of moderate Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), whose home state is 18 percent American Indian or Alaska Native. Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska even stopped by Tuesday’s hearing to give Haaland a bipartisan introduction, encouraging his GOP colleagues to confirm her to the post.
“She has worked with me. She has crossed the aisle, and as a member of this administration, I know she will do a good job,” Young said. “Respectfully, I want you to listen to her. Understand that there’s a broad picture.”
Democrats note the historic nature of Haaland possibly overseeing tribal lands
Beyond overseeing public lands, the Interior Department also manages the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which oversees more than 55 million acres of tribal land. The first Native American nominated to serve as a Cabinet secretary, Haaland has firsthand knowledge of how to improve tribal communities, as she has done as vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources and as chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands.
As the hearing got underway, Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico noted that having a Native American secretary for the Interior is “frankly something that should have happened a long time ago.”
“How can we help make Indian lives better?” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders asked Haaland, who listed numerous issues — a lack of education funding, a lack of clean air and water, the Indigenous women who have gone missing, and severe health care disparities.
“It’s the job of the federal government to live up to its tribal trust promises,” Haaland said. “The pandemic has highlighted these disparities. If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.”
Haaland, who protested the Dakota Access Pipeline before joining Congress as one of the first two Native American women, was also questioned by Republican senators, who inquired about the possibility of Haaland recusing herself in decisions related to the pipeline. But Haaland’s opposition to the project, which sparked the monthslong Standing Rock protests, stems from the fact that it cuts through tribal lands and has the potential to contaminate the primary source of drinking water for nearby tribes.
In her opening remarks, Haaland said one of her utmost priorities as Interior secretary would be to “honor the sovereignty of tribal nations and recognize their part in America’s story.”
When senators return on Wednesday for a second round of questioning before their vote, she could be one step closer to fulfilling that promise.