WASHINGTON — Rep. Deb Haaland confronted expected tough questioning from Republican senators on Tuesday at her confirmation hearing to become the first Native American secretary of the Department of the Interior.
But the New Mexico Democrat also drew support from Rep. Don Young, a longtime Alaska Republican who made a quick appearance to praise her for her willingness to work with GOP colleagues in the House. Many of Haaland’s critics are from oil-and gas-producing states in the West and have slammed the Biden administration’s recent moves on energy policy.
“I have a lot at stake here. I am an oil-producing state too,” Young told members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “She’ll work for us and she’ll reach across the aisle. If we have people in the Department of Interior like Deb maybe there’ll be a balance.”
The hearing will continue on Wednesday.
Haaland began her opening statement by recognizing the ancestral homelands of the Nacotchtank, Anacostan, and Piscataway people, who were the original stewards of the land that Washington, D.C., was built upon.
If confirmed, Haaland, who is an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo, would run the $21 billion department that manages more than 450 million acres of public lands. The Interior secretary also oversees 70,000 employees and 574 American Indian and Alaska Native tribal communities.
“I carry my life experiences with me everywhere I go. It’s those experiences that give me hope for the future,” Haaland said. “If an Indigenous woman from humble beginnings can be confirmed as secretary of the Interior, our country holds promise for everyone.”
While many questions centered on oil and gas production, Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican, challenged Haaland’s support of a bill that would reintroduce grizzly bears on tribal lands. He argued that the population of grizzly bears was high enough that it didn’t need to be considered a threatened species anymore.
“Why would you co-sponsor a bill like that when the science tells us the bear numbers are well above recovery targets?” he asked.
“I imagine at the time, I was caring about the bears,” she said.
Priorities at Interior
The committee chair, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has said he remains undecided on supporting her nomination, asked Haaland what her top priorities would be if confirmed to lead the Interior Department.
Haaland said she would work to provide clean energy jobs, restore public lands, support federal employees and focus on cleaning up abandoned mines across the country.
In the House, she chaired the Natural Resources subcommittee that oversees public lands and national parks.
“The earth is here to provide for us and that’s my belief,” she said. “It was the cornfields, with my grandfather, where I learned the importance of water and protecting our resources, where I gained a deep respect for the earth.”
While Manchin, a Democrat, did not reveal if he would vote for Haaland, he was pleased to hear her support for cleaning up abandoned mines in his coal- mining state.
“I think that if we have the resources to clean those (mines) up that’ll make life easier for everybody,” Haaland said.
She also said that she would continue to focus on addressing the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and expanding broadband internet in Indian Country.
Haaland led a bipartisan effort in the House and Senate— including with Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, both of whom sit on the committee— to pass a bill to create a commission to investigate missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The National Crime Information Center found in 2016 that there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and that Native women experience violence at 10 times the national average.
Oil and gas leases
Several Republican senators from Western states who have already voiced their concerns about the nomination grilled Haaland on her and the Biden administration’s energy policies.
The ranking member, Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, expressed his frustration with the executive order that President Joe Biden signed in January that places a temporary hold on new oil and gas leases while the administration reviews those leases related to fossil fuels.
“If confirmed, would you tell the president that it’s unwise to continue the pause as a permanent ban?” Barrasso asked her, arguing that the halt of new leases would cost thousands of jobs.
Haaland reminded him that the executive order was not a permanent ban and that the hold still allowed for renewal of existing oil and gas leases. She added that she was not sure when the administration would be done with its review.
“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,” she said.
After the hearing, Barrasso told a group of reporters that he was still not satisfied with her answers.
“I think she’s failed to answer so many questions that members have, so we’re gonna have another round of questions tomorrow,” he said, according to pool reports. “Most of the members on my side of the aisle have additional questions. Ones I’ve talked to said she’s failed to answer their questions adequately.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, also criticized Haaland for her views, arguing that she was “prejudiced against fossil fuels” and asked her if she would make her decisions based on science.
“I have stated many times that if I am confirmed to the Interior Department, decisions will be guided by science,” she said.
Dakota Access Pipeline
Sen. John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican, asked Haaland if she would recuse herself from work that involved the Dakota Access Pipeline because she supported the protestors.
The pipeline would have run under part of Lake Oahe, which was near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Members from Standing Rock and other Native American groups protested the pipeline, arguing that it was not only a threat to the water but also ancient burial grounds.
“Yes, I did go to stand with the water protectors,” she said, adding that tribal consultation is important.
She also said that if she was confirmed she would consult with Interior attorneys and the ethics team first about work related to the pipeline.
Casey Camp-Horinek, Elder and Environmental Ambassador for the Ponca Nation of Oklahoma, said in a statement that Haaland “understands what it means to have a spiritual connection to the land.”
“As Interior Secretary, Ms. Haaland would be uniquely positioned to make more just and equitable public land use decisions, especially for mining and drilling activities impacting Indigenous peoples,” said Camp-Horinek, who is also a board member for Earthworks, a nonprofit organization that works to protect communities and the environment.
A Republican supporter
Young told the committee that while he and Haaland don’t agree with each other on certain policies, they have often worked together to pass legislation, especially when it comes to policy pertaining to Indigenous groups and public lands.
“I would suggest respectfully that her working with her Native people would be beneficial (as) the secretary of Interior,” Young said.
He added that while Republicans have a right to be frustrated with the executive order Biden signed pertaining to oil and gas leases, it’s not Haaland’s fault, and he argued that if she were confirmed to the agency, she would listen to their concerns.
Haaland’s confirmation would be historic for Native Americans, as well as help shape the future of Indigenous communities in the U.S., the executive director of the Center for Native American Youth, Nikki Pitre, said in a statement.
“As Interior Secretary, Haaland would play a monumental role in shaping the Indian Country that will be inherited by our Native youth,” Pitre said. “She will be a fierce advocate for all of us, in a way that no one else can.”
If confirmed, Haaland would be tasked with not only carrying out the Biden administration’s pledge to protect 30 percent of U.S. land and water by 2030, but also inheriting a staffing crisis at the Bureau of Land Management.
After the Trump administration announced plans to relocate BLM headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo., hundreds of Washington-based employees left the agency.
Freshman Colorado Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper has argued that the move can be successful.
“I’m hoping there’s a path forward where we can find a solution that restores a fully functioning agency, while allowing BLM staff who are close to the lands they manage. As you consider this coordination, I’m hoping you’ll commit to keeping an open dialogue and working with us Western senators,” he said, then offered for her to come out and visit the headquarters in Grand Junction.