Interior secretary nominee walks line between Biden agenda, worried senators

Feb. 23, 2021
The congresswoman nominated to be Interior secretary got through the first phase of her nomination hearing in the Senate with expressions of hope to work with Congress and stakeholders but reminders that President Biden will determine her policies.

The congresswoman nominated to be Interior secretary got through the first phase of her nomination hearing in the Senate Feb. 23 with many expressions of hope to work with members of Congress and regional stakeholders but an occasional reminder that President Biden will determine her policies.

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) faced Republican senators skeptical of her policy ideas on oil and gas. The breadth of policy issues handled by Interior and the concerns of the senators were enough that a second session for the hearing was scheduled for Feb. 24.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who has voiced doubt that he will vote to confirm Haaland, asked her if she would recommend to Biden an extension of the moratorium on new oil and gas leasing on federal lands.

Haaland avoided saying what she would recommend, and her response served as one of the recurrent themes of the hearing.

“If I am confirmed, it is President Biden’s agenda, not my agenda, that I will be moving forward,” she told Daines.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), asked her if she agreed with Biden’s decision to block the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline project, a decision that eliminated an estimated 11,000 current and future construction jobs.

“It’s his decision,” Haaland said. “He’s the president.”

Economics, science, and Biden

The hearing was mostly friendly. The senators seemed to be aware that they knew far more about the energy subjects than Haaland does, and they did not sound inclined to embarrass her. Haaland has a very short resume, having been in Congress only 2 years and never having previously been involved in land management or environmental regulation.

She has in the past expressed opposition to hydraulic fracturing and to the Dakota Access Pipeline, but to the senators she said she hoped to work with them in a bipartisan spirit, and she said fossil fuels are not going away anytime soon.

“There’s no question that fossil energy does and will continue to play a major role in America for years to come,” Haaland testified. “I know how important oil and gas revenues are to fund critical services.”

More than one senator, but especially Cassidy and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), pushed her on the economic realities of oil and gas markets. She agreed that blocking oil and gas production in the US will not accomplish anything for the climate if it merely shifts the sources of oil to other countries.

But she added that she hoped policies and energy innovation could change that picture by increasing the role of cleaner energy sources and reducing the need for fossil fuels.

Cassidy pushed her to promise that if she is confirmed, Interior policies will be based on science, and she agreed. The senator’s question was his way of suggesting that Biden had ignored science when he blocked Keystone XL, given that greenhouse gas emissions will not be blocked but merely shifted to other oil sources.

Dakota Access questions

Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) asked Haaland if she still opposed the Dakota Access Pipeline, which for 3 years has been carrying crude oil from North Dakota to markets. She avoided a direct response.

The US Army Corps of Engineers, a Defense Department agency, is working on an environmental impact statement for the pipeline as a result of litigation (OGJ Online, Feb. 1, 2021).

Much has been made of the fact that Haaland is a Native American, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna in her home state. Hoeven called attention to the fact that Dakota Access carries oil not only from private lands but the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes, who share the Fort Berthold Reservation under the name Three Affiliated Tribes.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Ala.) noted that many projects important to her home state are being challenged in court, including Willow field, being developed by ConocoPhillips Co. on federal land in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The senator said she hoped that if Haaland becomes Interior secretary, her department will fight in court to defend the work of Interior’s own professional staff in approving such projects.