WASHINGTON (AP) — Oil and natural gas will continue to play a major role in America for years to come, even as the Biden administration seeks to conserve public lands and address climate change, President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the Interior Department pledged Tuesday.
Deb Haaland, a New Mexico congresswoman named to lead the Interior Department, said she is committed to “strike the right balance” as the agency manages energy development and seeks to restore and protect the nation’s sprawling federal lands.
Biden’s agenda, including the possible creation of a Civilian Climate Corps, “demonstrates that America’s public lands can and should be engines for clean energy production” and “has the potential to spur job creation,” Haaland said at her confirmation hearing.
Haaland’s remarks were intended to rebut criticism from some Republicans who have complained that her opposition to drilling on federal lands will cost thousands of jobs and harm economies throughout the West.
Haaland, 60, would be the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency. The Laguna Pueblo member and two-term congresswoman often draws on her experience as a single mother and the teachings of her ancestors as a reminder that action the U.S. takes on climate change, the environment and sacred sites will affect generations to come.
Native Americans see Haaland’s nomination as the best chance to move from consultation on tribal issues to consent and to put more land into the hands of tribal nations either outright or through stewardship agreements. The Interior Department has broad oversight of tribal affairs and energy development.
“The historic nature of my confirmation is not lost on me, but I will say that it is not about me,” Haaland said. ”Rather, I hope this nomination would be an inspiration for Americans — moving forward together as one nation and creating opportunities for all of us.”
Under questioning from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Haaland said the U.S. will continue to rely on fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas, even as it moves toward Biden’s goal of net zero carbon emissions by mid-century.
The transition to clean energy “is not going to happen overnight,” she said.
Manchin, who is publicly undecided on Haaland’s nomination, appeared relieved, saying he supports “innovation, not elimination” of fossil fuels.
As the daughter of a Pueblo woman, Haaland says she learned early to value hard work. Her mother is a Navy veteran and worked for a quarter-century at the Bureau of Indian Education, an Interior Department agency. Her father was a Marine who served in Vietnam. He received the Silver Star and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
“As a military family, we moved every few years when I was a kid, but no matter where we lived, my dad taught me and my siblings to appreciate nature, whether on a mountain trail or walking along the beach,” Haaland said.
The future congresswoman spent summers with her grandparents in Mesita, a Laguna Pueblo village. “It was in the cornfields with my grandfather where I learned the importance of water and protecting our resources and where I gained a deep respect for the Earth,” she said.
Haaland pledged to lead the Interior Department with honor and integrity and said she will be “a fierce advocate for our public lands.”
She promised to listen to and work with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and ensure that the Interior Department’s decisions are based on science. She also vowed to “honor the sovereignty of tribal nations and recognize their part in America’s story.”
She said she fully understands the role the Interior Department must play in Biden’s “build back better” plan for infrastructure and clean energy and said she will seek to protect natural resources for future generations “so that we can continue to work, live, hunt, fish, and pray among them.”
Haaland’s nomination has stirred strong opposition from some Republicans who say her “radical ideas” don’t fit in with a rural way of life, particularly in the West. They cite her support for the Green New Deal and Biden’s recent moratorium on oil and gas drilling on federal lands — which doesn’t apply to tribal lands — and her opposition to fracking and the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said Haaland will have to convince him she’s willing to break from what he called her “radical views” as a lawmaker, including opposition to the oil industry and to the lifting of federal protections for grizzly bears.
“Her record speaks for itself. She’s a die-hard, far-left ideologue,” Daines said in an interview.
Some Native American advocates called the description of Haaland as “radical” a loaded reference to her tribal status.
“That kind of language is sort of a dog whistle for certain folks that see somebody who is an Indigenous woman potentially being in a position of power,” said Ta’jin Perez with the group Western Native Voice. “Folks to some degree are afraid of change.”
Daines called the notion of racial overtones in his remarks outrageous.
National civil rights groups have joined forces with tribal leaders and environmental groups in supporting Haaland. A joint statement by the NAACP, UnidosUS and Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum praised her nomination as “historic” and called Haaland “a proven civil rights/racial justice advocate.”
A letter signed by nearly 500 national and regional organizations representing Native Americans, environmental justice groups and outdoor businesses called Haaland “a proven leader and the right person to lead the charge against the existential threats of our time: tackling the climate, biodiversity, extinction and COVID-19 crises and racial justice inequities on our federal public lands and waters.”
Associated Press writer Matthew Brown in Billings, Mont., contributed to this report.