United States President Joe Biden is facing stiff resistance in the US Senate to his nominations for multiple cabinet and agency positions — including Neera Tanden, who on Tuesday was pulled from the process to become budget director at the White House.
The political agenda for the first 100 days of his administration has been bogged down by the slow pace in congressional confirmation of Biden’s top picks.
But one of the most contentious approval processes yet is over Representative Deb Haaland, the Democrat from New Mexico tapped to lead the US Department of the Interior (DOI).
On Thursday, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources voted 11-9 to advance Haaland’s nomination. A vote from Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who broke ranks with her fellow GOP committee members, put it over the top.
Haaland’s nomination now goes to the Senate floor for a vote. She is widely expected to be confirmed, but the hearings surrounding her nomination could signal a tough legislative road ahead for Biden’s climate agenda.
The DOI is one of four government agencies that administer some 640 million acres (260 million hectares) of federally owned lands. That real estate includes patches the US oil and gas industry and mining firms would like to develop for drilling, extraction and pipelines.
During Haaland’s confirmation hearings, supporters of the US fossil-fuel industry expressed strong opposition to the progressive nominee’s stance on climate change.
She has been an outspoken opponent of fracking — which catapulted US energy production to new heights. Haaland was also a cosponsor of the original Green New Deal resolution.
“If she’s allowed to pursue her Green New Deal-inspired policies at the Department of Interior, she will run Wyoming and other states’ economies into the ditch,” Senator John Barrasso, the highest-ranking Republican committee member, said on Thursday. “Representative Haaland’s extreme policy views and lack of substantive answers during the hearing, to me, disqualify her.”
Last week, in response to a grilling by several Republican senators who have received substantial campaign funds from oil, gas and coal companies, Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, told Haaland that her nomination “is a proxy fight over the future of fossil fuels”.
Cantwell went on to say that the debate over oil pipelines and drilling rights underlined a dramatic split between Republican and Democratic members of the committee, and differing visions for the DOI mandate in managing federal lands and public resources.
Haaland, who has vociferously advocated for climate action, told the senators at the hearing that fossil fuels will remain in the US economy for “years to come”.
Those assurances did not assuage Republican senators such as Barrasso — plus Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy and Montana’s Steve Daines — who set clear defensive lines in their fight to extend US reliance on fossil fuels.
Tara Houska, an attorney and Indigenous rights activist based in Minnesota, was recently arrested with more than 100 other environmental advocates for protesting the Enbridge Line 3 crude oil pipeline that runs through the northern part of her state.
That $2.6bn fossil-fuel infrastructure project is the sort of development that could face jeopardy under Biden’s new DOI secretary.
“We’re talking about the control of the fossil-fuel industry and the disparate impact it has had on Indian Country,” Houska told Al Jazeera.
For many vulnerable Native American groups like the Anishinaabe in the rural Midwest, safety concerns about pipelines and political questions about land sovereignty overlap with climate campaigners’ argument that expansion of the fossil-fuel industry both exacerbates global warming and is an economic dead end.
“The oil companies and mining industry are used to walking all over us,” said Houska. “And seeing this Native person with enormous [potential] influence on the outcome of extractive projects is probably quite frightening for them.”
Houska, who served as 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s Native American policy adviser, added that Haaland is likely to “ascend into a position holding great authority in the US government”.
With Biden already putting the kibosh on the Keystone XL pipeline and facing increasing pressure to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline, Haaland’s own record as vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources has come under the microscope.
“While we have expressed concerns over several of the policy positions she supported in the US House, we appreciate her acknowledgement that running a department comes with a different role and set of responsibilities,” Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of economics and regulatory affairs at the American Petroleum Institute (API), said in a statement to Al Jazeera.
“Secretary-designate Haaland is nominated to lead the Department of the Interior at a time when the US leads the world both in energy production and emissions reductions, and we look forward to helping shape policies that build on this progress,” the statement continued, referencing the key role that API — the main oil and gas lobby group in the US — had in cheerleading the fracking boom of the last decade.
An opportunity to focus on jobs
Biden’s moratorium on new permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands does not apply to tribal areas. But activists like Houska see an opportunity for the Biden administration to focus on environmental preservation, climate justice and, crucially, job creation.
The infrastructure bill that the White House is set to release this spring could highlight the construction of renewable energy installations, as well as the remediation of aging fossil-fuel infrastructure — which includes sealing old oil wells, patching up pipelines and stopping methane leaks.
Megan Milliken Biven is the founder of True Transition, an organisation dedicated to the abandoned well problem and to finding jobs for everyone from former rig managers and drillers to roughnecks and roustabouts.
She told Al Jazeera that tens of thousands of oil and gas workers could immediately start to “identify, tag, plug and cap, and monitor the millions of oil and gas wells that terrorise American communities coast from coast”.
Biven believes the DOI has a bigger obligation to fossil-fuel workers and fossil-fuel dependent communities than to fossil-fuel companies themselves. A former DOI employee, she argues the federal government should reverse the 1970s energy policy mandating regular auctions of offshore resources in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as in New Mexico and many other states.
She also suggested that many DOI staffers feel “statutorily obligated” to boost oil and gas production, though Biven says the department should instead be focused on the “orderly and managed decline” of the fossil-fuel sector.
‘Patina of toxic sexism and racism’
Some activists believe opposition to Haaland’s nomination is not only about the future of the US mining and fossil-fuel industries.
“If we had an identical candidate who was a white man, he would not be treated that way,” Collin Rees, a senior campaigner at Oil Change International, told Al Jazeera, noting what he described as a “patina of their toxic sexism and racism on display”.
Haaland, who has just served two years in the House after being inaugurated in 2019, is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe based near the city of Albuquerque. And she is broadly backed by environmentalists, tribal leaders and civil-rights groups.
“I do absolutely think [Republicans] have chosen what they perceive to be a weak link and are hammering on this,” Rees said, adding that “fossil-fuel allies are scared about how rapidly the debate has shifted on them over the last several years”.
Activists are under no illusion that Haaland will be able to stop every single planned pipeline, though the fossil-fuel industry likely will not be as substantial a part of crafting the country’s climate policy — after decades of opposing deep emissions reductions to stave off the climate emergency.
Almost one-quarter of US carbon emissions are produced on public lands.
Rees said that Haaland could “shift the calculus of who DOI is working for” but recognises the immense challenges ahead — and patience needed — for the transition to low-carbon energy sources.
“Nobody is asking for these [oil] taps to be turned off tomorrow,” he said.