Congresswoman Deb Haaland, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for the Interior Secretary, speaks after Biden announced her nomination among another round of nominees and appointees for his administration in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., December 19, 2020. Credit: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the sprawling federal agency responsible for managing much of the nation’s federal lands faced sharp questioning this week about opinions some Republicans say are “radical” and unfavorable toward energy production. 

The questioning, including from Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines, came during more than four hours of hearings with members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Tuesday and Wednesday as they considered Biden’s nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, to lead the Department of the Interior. If confirmed, Haaland would lead the federal department responsible for management and conservation of about three-fourths of the country’s federal lands, including millions of acres in Montana. Lands the department manages make up about 20% of the U.S. and are responsible for about one-fourth of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Haaland, a citizen of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo tribe, would become the first Indigenous person to hold a cabinet-level position. As Interior Secretary, Haaland would also oversee the federal government’s relationship with the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes. Her experience as an Indigenous person, Haaland said Wednesday, has helped instill a desire to protect “Mother Earth,” and motivated her to want to become Interior Secretary. 

“While we don’t agree on everything, Congresswoman Haaland has shown herself to be well qualified to lead the Interior Department, and I will vote to confirm her.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester

“It’s difficult to not feel obligated to protect this land,” she testified. “And that means protecting it in every single way and ensuring that those jobs, that sustenance, the opportunities for our children and grandchildren to learn and grow in this beautiful country, that we keep that for many generations to come. It’s an obligation of mine that I take very seriously.”

But integral to the potentially historic confirmation is concern from some Republicans, including Daines, representing energy-producing states who have raised alarms about early actions of the Biden administration, like pausing new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and canceling a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. They say that Biden’s net-zero emissions agenda poses a threat to states and citizens who rely on fossil fuel industries. They’ve also pointed to Haaland’s previous support for initiatives like the Green New Deal and moratoriums on oil and gas extraction on federal lands as a reason for concern. 

While the hearings also included questions about endangered species, national monument boundaries, grazing management and national park infrastructure, the most pointed questions came from Republicans worried about a Biden administration, supported by the Interior Department, banning fracking or enacting portions of the president’s clean energy agenda. 

“I truly hope if you’re appointed that you’re guided by science and not by the president’s political agenda,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana. “You may have faith in it, but so far, his current actions do not give me faith in it.”

Haaland repeatedly deflected questions about her own previous statements and stressed that she would be working to implement Biden’s vision — not hers. She added that her decisions would be made after consulting affected stakeholders, experts in the field, states and tribal governments before making decisions. 

“It’s difficult to not feel obligated to protect this land. And that means protecting it in every single way and ensuring that those jobs, that sustenance, the opportunities for our children and grandchildren to learn and grow in this beautiful country, that we keep that for many generations to come. It’s an obligation of mine that I take very seriously.”

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico

She also said fossil fuels aren’t disappearing anytime soon, and so she would balance the protection of public lands with the jobs that rely on those lands. 

“I will reiterate again, President Biden’s agenda would be my agenda. If I am confirmed, I recognize that the roles are different,” she said in response to a question from Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso. “I want to make sure that, if I’m confirmed, that we’re looking at things and working to strike the right balance. We need to care as much about the environment as we do about the fossil fuel infrastructure in your state and other states.”

During questioning Tuesday and Wednesday, and in statements leading up to the hearings, Daines, a member of the committee, said he likely will not vote to confirm Haaland because of her previous support for ideas like the Green New Deal. After Wednesday’s hearing, Daines released a statement confirming that his concerns remain, and that he will not vote to confirm Haaland and will work “to block and defeat it.” He has also pointed to numerous officials in Montana who have said Haaland’s values don’t mesh with the “Montana way of life.”

“She’s a hardline ideologue with radical views out of touch with Montana and the West,” Daines’ statement said. “The Secretary of the Interior should be a consensus-builder with a pragmatic and well-balanced track record. I’m concerned Rep. Haaland will be unable to separate from her progressive agenda and support what’s best for Montana and the West. I’m not convinced she’s committed to bringing diverse stakeholders together. Her hostile record towards energy, natural resources and sportsmen issues are very concerning.”

Montana’s other senator, Democrat Jon Tester, will vote to confirm Haaland, he said in a statement Wednesday. After meeting with Haaland in January, Tester — who has supported construction of the Keystone XL pipeline — said they had a constructive conversation, and that he would work closely with her if confirmed.

“During our meeting and in her confirmation hearing, Congresswoman Haaland demonstrated a strong commitment to protecting Montana’s public lands, creating good-paying jobs, upgrading aging water infrastructure in rural America, and ensuring the federal government meets its trust and treaty responsibilities to Tribal nations,” Tester said in a statement. “Make no mistake, the folks who work in the extractive resource industries are essential to Montana’s economy, and I will continue to defend these jobs from burdensome regulations. But while we don’t agree on everything, Congresswoman Haaland has shown herself to be well qualified to lead the Interior Department, and I will vote to confirm her.”

“The Secretary of the Interior should be a consensus-builder with a pragmatic and well-balanced track record. I’m concerned Rep. Haaland will be unable to separate from her progressive agenda and support what’s best for Montana and the West.”

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines

While much of the Republican pushback has centered on fears that a Haaland-led Interior Department would be unfavorable to fossil fuel extraction and projects on federal land, tribal leaders, advocates and conservation groups in Montana and the U.S. have pushed for her confirmation, saying she’d be a good steward of public lands, effectively manage them for the benefit of the the diverse populations of Americans who use them and improve the relationship between tribes and the federal government. Those supporters include the Montana Legislature’s American Indian Caucus, Western Native Voice and the Montana Wilderness Association

“We urge Sen. Daines to stand with Native Americans, with all Montanans, and with the tide of history in supporting the first Native American cabinet secretary,” said state Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Helena, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, in a Wednesday statement released by Montana Democrats. 

Haaland’s nomination also got a key endorsement from a senator representing a state that relies on coal production, with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, saying Wednesday he will vote to confirm her nomination. 

The committee didn’t take action after the hearing and will meet again to decide how to proceed. The committee can choose to report the nomination favorably or unfavorably to the full Senate, without recommendation, or can take no action.

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Chris covers Native American issues as a Report for America Corps member based in Billings. He also monitors the Montana Supreme Court, federal courts and criminal justice issues. Before joining MTFP in 2020, Chris most recently covered tribal affairs and Wyoming's Wind River Reservation for the Casper Star-Tribune, and has also reported for the Wisconsin State Journal. Contact Chris at caadland@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 4, and follow @cjaadland on Twitter.